My dad, as an Irishman living abroad, used to have lots of books about Ireland and all things Irish – sports, writers, poems, songs and music. When I was little, I used to read anything I could get my hands on, but I particularly loved the stories of Ireland long ago. One book especially has been on my mind recently and I must go back to my mom’s and see can I dig it out. The Irish Christmas Book. I used to love sitting down and reading the different stories. They were full of old traditions from a time when my dad was young or maybe even his dad’s time. Some of these traditions like the Wren Boys are gone or dying out. Others such as the candle in the window are making a come back.
I do love Christmas. I love the getting ready, the cleaning house and decorating, the anticipation, the familiar traditions, sounds and smells. I love the waiting in the dark at Christmas Eve Mass and the big burst of the Gloria which is withheld for so long. I don’t love all the hype these days and the frantic rushing around the shops to buy, buy, buy. Nor do I love how Christmas hype starts as soon as Halloween is over. Everyone seems to have forgotten about Advent: a time of waiting, of preparation. Not just the house and present list but actually preparing ourselves for Christmas, which is after all, about the birth of the baby Jesus. I get that some people don’t believe and that’s their choice and I hope that they still have a ‘Happy Holiday’ as the Americans would say but it makes me sad that Christmas gets hijacked and lost.
That’s why I like Advent so much. It’s a time to slow everything down. As a Catholic, Advent is in fact a mini-Lent. And in being a mini-Lent, it focuses us on what is coming and makes the celebration of Christmas so much bigger and so much more joyous. So different to the anti-climax and jaded feeling I used to get by the time Christmas ‘finally rolled around’. I was so caught up in the rushing around and doing and buying and go-go-go, that I used to be sick of Christmas cheer and carols.
Now I slow it down. It’s not Christmas till the Fourth Sunday of Advent has been and gone. (In fact Christmas doesn’t actually start till Christmas Day. The twelve days of Christmas finish at the Epiphany.) We don’t put up a tree until the last week of Advent. When I was little, my aunt used to come and spend Christmas with us. She would nearly always have a new decoration for us. Lovely unusual ones. I set out looking for our own Christmas decorations that would mean something to us. Later on, my mom donated the decorations I grew up with to our little family. Maybe someday the Little Paddler will hand these decorations on to her children. The crib goes up, but the manger is empty with only the animals watching and waiting until we come home from Mass on Christmas Eve. The three wise men then start their journey from across the room and each day I move them a little closer until finally they arrive at the baby Jesus’ feet on the 6th January – just in time for the decorations to start coming down. I kind of feel sorry for them.
When Mr. Fairweather and I got married first and were approaching that first Christmas together, I asked what traditions would we bring from our respective homes and what would we make our own for our brand new, little family. Our families are very different – that has its good points and its bad ones. His family always have a big get together on Christmas night. The little ones compare stories of Santa’s visit and the adults and older children play cards into the wee hours. Whereas in our family, our big thing was Christmas Eve. We always went to Christmas Eve Mass and came home and had fresh ham sandwiches before hitting the hay. So today, we still go to his family home for Christmas night but now we have our own little get together on Christmas Eve after midnight Mass (held at nine o’clock these days). We invite the families and neighbours over for a cup of tea or something a little stronger and a bite to eat. I will have usually spent the previous day or two baking and cooking; baked ham, cinnamon roll wreath, fresh bread, chocolate brownies. I like my food. This year I have bottled up some ginger beer and it is brewing up nicely. I cannot wait to crack it open on Christmas Eve.
We have other traditions we are making our own although this year has been a bit all over the place. We made no wreath this year – not even an Advent wreath which I have been making the last few years. Next year when the house building is finished and we have moved in to somewhere with a bit more space, I hope to get back in to wreath making. It’s another tradition I used to do with my dad. We would take the dog for a walk down the back roads where he had spotted some holly bushes and pick a few branches as we went. If we were in real luck, we would get some with berries before the birds had stripped them bare. We have lots of holly bushes here on our little patch now so I won’t have to go too far in search of them next time. For this year I’ll just bring a few fresh branches in to decorate the sills.
And we will of course be lighting our candle in the window and letting it burn through Christmas Eve night to tell the wanderers Jesus and Mary that they might find shelter in our home that night.