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An Advent Memory
by Bridget Haggerty

Right after supper, on the first Sunday of Advent, everyone at St. Vincent’s Boarding School for Girls, waited in eager anticipation for the lighting of the first candle.

A huge wreath was somehow magically suspended below the main chandelier in the center of the dining hall. Tables and chairs were quickly pushed back so there was enough space for all of us to gather in a circle, three or four tiers deep, with the youngest in front. As excited as we were, all of us were very careful to remain silent - that was the rule.

While we took our places, two of the sisters helped each other carry a step-ladder into the circle. One of them also carried a long, lit taper. Then, while one sister stood by to offer assistance if needed, the other one began to climb the steps. We all watched in awe as she made her ascent, one hand steadying her progress, and the other gripping the taper. As soon as she was close enough, she held the taper to the candle. At first, the wick flickered, but then flared into a bright illumination and that was when all of the other lights in the hall were extinguished.

In the glow of that single candle, a group of sisters began to sing “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel.” Then, we all joined in. I was just six years old the first time I took part in the Advent Ceremony at St. Vincent’s, but I can remember it as if it were yesterday.

The ritual would be repeated every Sunday until Christmas, except that by the third or fourth Sunday, our numbers would have dwindled dramatically as girls left to go home for the holidays. One year, my family was experiencing some difficulties and I was among the few who were left on that last Sunday. I did my best to sing the carol, thankful that, even though the four candles of Advent shone brightly, it was still dark enough to hide tears of disappointment.

Imagine my joy when I was called to the Mother Superior’s office late on Christmas Eve, and there stood my dad, waiting to take me home. I snuggled up to him all the way back on the train, as happy as I’ve ever been, before or since.

On arrival at the flats, I took the stairs as only a ten year old is capable of. At the top, our front door was thrown wide open, and there stood my mum and two brothers with their arms outstretched in welcome. As we hugged and laughed, I was guided over to our front window where mum had placed a tall candle to light the path for the Holy Family.

Generally, it is customary for the youngest child in the family to have the honor of lighting this candle because, as the Irish point out, they will live the longest and send the custom furthest. But, on this most special of Christmas Eve’s, my parents bestowed the honor on me. I’ve long forgotten what gifts Father Christmas brought me that year - whatever they were, they are totally overshadowed in the light of the gifts I had already been given.

Image: Advent Wreath from The Celtic Attic.

 

Tue, Dec 2, 2014


Holly and Ivy hanging up and
something wet in every cup*

Not so long ago, Irish Christmas decorations were much simpler than they are now. The children gathered holly and ivy for adorning, windows, doorways, mantles and pictures, and the father would carve out a turnip in which would be placed a large red candle. This would go in the window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Only in relatively recent times did an Irish family have a Nativity scene and a decorated tree in the house. As for Mistletoe, it's quite rare in ireland and is generally associated with ancient Celtic and Druidic fertility celebrations; this is most likely where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
*Old Irish Christmas toast
Image: Pashley Manor Gardens.

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