I was born almost exactly six months after Christmas; so my first Christmas was spent in the comfort of my mother’s womb. The only gift I got was the only gift I really needed, the gift of life. I was the first child for my parents, and I imagine it was both an anxious and a hope-filled time for them. It crossed my mind recently that I am fast approaching my 65th Christmas. While people often say Christmas is for children, I have to say that it has lost none of its magic for me, though the experience has changed quite a bit over the years. My favourite part of Christmas is the mid-night Mass, but Christmas dinner with the family is a close second.
Most of my memories of Christmas, down through the years, are connected with family. As children, it was all about our family and the Holy Family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph – and we were, somehow, connected. Somebody once pointed out to me that some of the old collect prayers at Mass in Advent began with the words “Stir up our hearts, O Lord”. That was the signal to begin preparing the cakes and puddings. When we were young we all joined in stirring the mix and we took our turns at “scraping the bowl”. Santa Claus came during Christmas Eve night, of course, and the milk and biscuits had to be left out to make sure he wasn’t too hungry to continue on his journey to visit the other boys and girls. None of our presents (except his) were ever opened before Mass on Christmas Day, because the most important gift of all was the gift of Jesus.
Throughout my childhood, one of the most important preparations for Christmas was the building of the crib. We used rocks and plants from the garden, sand and cotton wool. Joseph and Mary “arrived” sometime in the afternoon on Christmas Eve and, in the best traditions of the “vigil”, the baby was placed in the manger last thing before we went to bed. There was always a flash lamp hidden somewhere in the roof of the cave to light up the manger. It was simple enough, but it was our “sacred-space” and, as children, we said our prayers at the crib with our parents.
The other tradition was placing the lighting candle in the window on Christmas Eve. It was a way of saying that, if Joseph and Mary came our way looking for “room at the inn”, they would be very welcome. Jesus could be born in our house for sure! I think, maybe, in that simple symbolic gesture, He was born in our house in a way that none of us realised. Jesus told us himself that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome Him. It strikes me that, if we were to put a candle or a lamp in the window this year, it might not only be a sign of welcome for the Holy Family. It could also be a symbol of welcome for and solidarity with refugee families. I think our children would understand the connection very easily. *
Some of you have lost family members, and I am very conscious that Christmas can be a difficult and lonely time for you, especially the first Christmas. For other families too, there will be an empty place at the table, because someone is in hospital, or overseas, in prison, or out of contact for whatever reason. If that empty place at the table makes you sad, it is a sure sign that the person you love is still held close in your heart. Be sure that he or she is also held close in the heart of Jesus, who was born to give us hope. You will be in my prayers especially this Christmas. I take this opportunity to wish all the people of the Diocese a Happy Christmas and every blessing in 2018.
* I should say that, for safety reasons, the candle in our home was always placed deep in a big vase full of sand so that it couldn’t topple over and it was kept well away from curtains. These days, it is easy enough to get an enclosed lantern in one of the home-care shops.
Notes to Editors
- Bishop Kevin Doran is Bishop of Elphin.
- Bishop Doran’s Christmas Message is available to watch at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2b8cifXoApc
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