Sunday Morning ~ A Light in the Window
December 2, 2018
Living with someone who has no history of religious tradition has been enlightening. It’s forced me to consider why my routines and traditions are important to me.
I’ll start with Christmas cards. I love making my cards. I love figuring out the design and the message. I love making each one and sending a personal note. It’s my annual creative challenge. I also love getting Christmas cards. It makes going to the mailbox fun! That’s the gift. A nice message maintaining a long term connection. I anticipate the arrival of other home made cards, seeing what my creative friends have come up with. One year I made doves out of handmade paper and wrote a message on a little scroll, tied it with a bow and tied the ribbon around the neck of the dove. I thought people would know to take off the scroll and read the message. When I went to visit my mother, I saw she had the card hanging on her little tree with the scroll still in place. She asked me why I didn’t even sign the card? I told her I did! You were supposed to take the scroll off and the message is inside. Oh! She hadn’t realized that. I thought she was getting old and feeble. Never gave it another thought. Then this week a friend sent me a photo of that card as she was about to hang it on her tree as an ornament. The scroll was still attached. I wrote back, did you know to open the message? She said, “No! I thought it was an ornament! Should I do it now?” I told her to open it, and she sent the photo of the signed message written in 2001, the last Christmas we were an intact family. It was right after 9/11 and I wanted to send a message of peace. I wonder how many others didn’t open it? I feel bad about thinking my mother didn’t get it; she obviously wasn’t the only one. Poor design. Market research fail.
Then I read about the history of Christmas cards, something I’d never thought about. I found it’s a fairly recent tradition, cleverly promoted around the time of the first post office in 1843 in England. Trying to boost business, Sir Henry Cole enlisted an artist friend to create a card to be mass produced and sent at Christmas. So much for my not wanting to promote the commercialism. But I am in favor of supporting the post office, which I still think is the best deal ever. That you can put this little stamp on something and it gets hand delivered to someone on the other side of the world. How can you complain about that?
Then there’s the advent wreath which I made yesterday. As George watched, he asked about the tradition. I couldn’t come up with a really good, articulate, historically accurate response. I thought about how many things we do just as a matter of routine, not knowing why. We never had advent wreaths in my house growing up, but there was always one at church. In 1988 my friend Betsy made us one as an early Christmas gift. Living in our tiny rental house in Connecticut with five little kids, we didn’t have many decorations around and it sweetly brightened our home for the month of December. Since then I’ve made one every year, but still never thought about where the tradition came from. So I looked it up. I’d always wondered why the candles were purple and pink instead of red, as would be more fitting with other decorations. It turns out the original candle colors were red and white. A Lutheran minister in Germany had made a wreath out of a cart wheel when he was working with poor children in Hamburgh. To count down the days until Christmas, they lit a red candle every day on the wheel, and a white one on Sundays. When the tradition caught on in the Catholic religion they made the candles coordinate with their advent vestments: purple for sacrifice and pink for joy. Fashion trend-setters that they were, that caught on. The circle represents infinite love. The evergreen, the hope of eternal life, and the candles represent the light of God coming through Jesus. The first of the four candles represents waiting in hope that the prophet’s words were true, that a savior was coming. The second candle represents faith as it was prophesied the birth would be in Bethlehem. The third (the pink one) represents joy and is lit on Gaudete Sunday the third week of advent (“gaudete” is “rejoice” in latin I just learned). This Joy comes from the shepherds who just heard from the angels that the savior is coming for them as well as the high and mighty. (I love this. I love the idea of angels actually speaking to the shepherds.) And the fourth candle is the peace candle, symbolizing the angels announcing that Jesus was coming to bring peace. I guess they didn’t specify exactly when that would happen. That would have helped in more realistic expectations as it’s going on three thousand years of waiting for that, but I still like to think of angels speaking when I light the candles, and I still pray for peace. I love what the wreath symbolizes and with all the discouragement about how we are behaving as humans, I’m happy to retreat into the darkening days holding on to this message.
When I was in college, my friend Ron would have a Christmas mass at his house. Dear Fr. Casey would say the mass and we’d celebrate the season with one of the Chibaro’s fabulous parties afterward. One year Ron asked me to give a history of the Christmas tree as part of the mass. I was thrilled to have a major role, never one for the stage. I somehow researched where the Christmas Tree tradition came from. I must have gone to the library and looked it up in an encyclopedia. God, that seems so archaic. I probably opined about any information I couldn’t find, but I remember Fr. Casey afterward telling me how special my little presentation was. No one on earth could make you feel as loved and honored as that man. What a gift he was. So I was familiar with the story of the tree and evergreen swags, which started as a pagan tradition to keep away witches, evil spirits, and illness. Since the pagan rituals were at the solstice it coincided with the feast of Adam and Eve on December 24th when that story got popular, and trees were then adorned with apples. Those evolved into glass baubles as civilization prospered. Queen Victoria made the Christmas tree into the icon it is now in 1846 when she had a photo taken with her family around the tree in the palace. This was not all included in my original oration as wikipedia did not exist then, but the pagan ritual was in there. I recall saying something like “for me I find God in nature, so to bring nature inside enriches the season.” or something equally mawkish.
And then the candles in the windows, which, I adore. It looks so warm and welcoming from the outside. This is another tradition we never did when I was growing up. I had terrible candle envy, as my best friend, Beth had candles in her windows. They were just so pretty. They looked so neat and tidy, orderly and clean. Welcoming. This is an Irish tradition emanating from the days when the British were doing their utmost to exterminate them. They were forbidden to practice Catholicism, but faithful as ever, went underground and persevered. The candles were signals for the priests to come on Christmas and give a blessing, or communion, or whatever he carried around at that time. Probably just the blessing was the safest since they were being executed for practicing at all. Wow, I understand now where the steadfastness comes from. The Irish immigrants brought the tradition here to America, for which I thank them. Would that it was still a message that all are welcome in this home; you’ll be safe here.
Love to all,