Saturday, February 17, 2007

A, B, C, D, E, F, G....

A whim of fashion has suddenly made alphabet beads very popular in the last few years. You can now get cube-shaped beads with any letter from A to Z -- and sometimes more, including hearts, stars, crosses and punctuation marks. Sterling silver cubes are quite popular, but every bead medium from gold to glass to {shudder} plastic is represented.

It didn't take long for rosary makers to start playing with the possibilities. One of the earliest rosaries I saw on eBay with alphabet beads was this one, which spells "Santa Maria" (conveniently, ten letters) in every decade.

Santa Maria rosary

Imagination soon suggested other ways to use the alphabet. You can now get a rosary that spells out your name in full, which certainly makes it unmistakably yours. In earlier and perhaps more modest times, you'd have had your name more subtly engraved on the back of the crucifix.

Instantly popular, too, was the idea of a rosary with the names of family members, usually one name per decade. You generally can't sell this sort of thing on eBay, because it needs to be customized to the buyer. But there are plenty of people willing to make one for you.

More creative rosary makers have branched out into other messages. You can now buy a rosary spelling out the name of your favorite saint, or citing your favorite Bible passage ("JOHN+3+16"). You can give your parish priest a rosary that spells out "Father Jerome" or your parents an anniversary rosary with their names and the words "50 years." I've also seen rosaries customized with just initials, often on the three central beads of the short pendant between the loop of a modern rosary and the cross.

Clearly, once you receive a rosary like this, you are stuck with it forever, and if you don't like it your only recourse is to stick it in a drawer. You can't give it away.

And of course I'm not suggesting anything of the sort. Many of these rosaries are quite beautiful and well made, and a tangible reminder to pray for your nearest and dearest is something many people like to have.


I was interested to find, when I started tracking rosary sales on eBay, that there is a definite peak season for giving rosaries as gifts. That peak is not Christmas, as one might expect, although there is certainly an upsurge in sales then. Nor is it Easter or Valentine's Day, which might also have some logic behind them. The big holiday for rosary gifts is Mother's Day.

I sometimes wonder -- rather wryly at times -- whether some religious groups' emphasis on an exclusively masculine clergy is an intentional counterbalance. At least since the 19th century, in European cultures if not elsewhere, women have been regarded as the more "spiritual" sex, or at least have felt more free to display religious fervor in public. I certainly don't think men are any less fervent or numerous in their devotion. But in a culture where men don't cry in public and don't ask for directions when they get lost, you probably won't see a lot of them praying the rosary in public either.

Women in traditional families also seem to function as the "social secretary" or the one who keeps in touch with everyone. This may well explain the decidedly feminine slant I've seen to the alphabet rosaries offered for sale -- especially those with family names. Pastel colors, iridescent glass beads, and crosses decorated with flowers, leaves and curlicues abound.


I've strayed rather far from the alphabet here, into musings on the social roles of women and men. But I think there is a connection, if only this: rosary beads reflect the times in which they are made, and especially, the styles of contemporary jewelry. This broadens our field as rosary researchers considerably. Where historical data about rosaries is lacking, books on period jewelry can provide valuable insight, and it's not uncommon for a rosary or two to appear along with the book's rings, bracelets and other jewelry. Equally, comparing the style of rosaries to that of jewelry can give us insight into what the rosary means to those who choose, wear, and pray it.