Sunday, December 29, 2013

Christmas BEYOND Wales

Earlier, partially in response to a friend's request to comment on 'The Meaning of Christmas', I wrote 'THIS Child's Christmas in Wales' and promised him that I'd follow it up with Christmas 'meaning' for me outside of Wales. This is it:

Our first Christmas on the ‘US side of the pond’ was in 1970. We were in the country barely 8 ½ months and our family at that time had only just begun. Our oldest son was just 5 weeks old. We had no relatives here to share the Christmas joy with, though I’m sure we probably got on the phone to call back to my parents in Wales and to my wife’s parents and siblings in Ireland. The latter was quite a task, for at that time, direct dialing was not possible; you had to give the operator the number you wanted to call and she would make the connection for you. It often took several attempts due to there being so few lines and so many calls being placed. Now of course, we hit speed dial on the cell phone and are ‘through’ in 2 seconds.

As our family grew, to 6 kids, we got to do some of the ‘Christmas things’ that we recalled from our own childhood days. My wife’s family’s traditions were a lot different from mine. Rural Ireland of the ‘50s was a far cry from the materialistic world we know in the US and even from my world in the ‘40s in urban Wales. But I’ll get back to the ‘Irish Christmas Scene’ later. But first, back to our kids.

We’d make sure to refer to the red-suited benefactor as ‘Santa’ – he was ‘Father Christmas’ across the pond – and we would get the kids to help put out a plate of cookies and glass of milk for his reindeer. Our kids had large, red ‘for Christmas use only’ stockings rather than the ‘everyday wear’ grey socks I had to be satisfied with. Unlike many of our US neighbors, who open all their gifts on Christmas Eve, our family holds to the tradition of opening presents in the morning of Christmas Day. But first, we would have attended Mass – either at midnight, or one of the afternoon (aimed to accommodate kids) Christmas Eve vigils that most parishes had, or an early morning Mass. In those years (most of them!) when we had nobody to baby-sit for us, or when it was too cold, we’d have to ‘split’ the duties. One of us would go to church at one time while the other watched the kids; then the roles would be reversed a few hours later. For some reason, it always seemed – and still seems - to be freezing cold on the trek to and from the church.

Any stockings that had been left on the bed were ‘fair game’ to be opened before trip to church – time permitting. On Christmas morning we’d gather around the tree and open whatever gifts had arrived at our home, whether via the chimney or in the mailman’s sack! The rest of the day was spent making those phone calls, watching ‘Christmas shows’ on TV, playing with the new toys, listening to Christmas music on the radio or on cassette tapes, and enjoying simple meals – nothing elaborate.  I only once saw anyone coming around to the houses or the neighborhood to sing Christmas carols. Our priest had arranged for a group of carolers to bring joy to the neighborhood.  Sure, some (few) communities hold carol singing events at small shopping areas – to attract customers; a few churches or social organizations even had ‘live’ nativity scenes – well, a tethered donkey made it so!  A few years ago, we went to a local church's Christmas pageant in which the actors were accompanied by a couple of real sheep, a cow, a camel and a two-week old baby - who slept through the hour-long event.       

Now, of course, we get to see Christmas in yet again a different light – through the eyes of our 12 grandchildren. I saw on TV recently, one couple in Ohio said they had ‘solved the Christmas dilemma’ by telling their kids that Santa was just helping to do Jesus’ work! The sequence of events in our house is still pretty much the same: church first then the presents – but of course the introduction of a few sets of ‘in-laws’ has resulted in some variations. Our youngest son and his kids go to his in-laws house on Christmas Eve and after church get to open presents there. But, the next morning, they wait until my wife and I arrive at their house to watch the wrapping paper fly in all directions as shrieks of excitement and joy fill the air. Then, we’ll eat a breakfast casserole of eggs, bread and sausage that the host has made. With our eldest daughter having children of her own, we now have two houses to rush to in the morning – if possible. However, each year we all (except for the Michigan branch of the family) gather at our house in the evening on Christmas Day for dinner. That usually consists of turkey and stuffing, sliced ham, roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and other vegetables. Various side dishes or desserts are brought by our children from their homes. The presents that Santa (and family members) left under our tree for those eager grandchildren are distributed, by an appointed ‘family Santa’ - before dinner, of course! Afterward the adults and older kids sit around and play a game or two of Pictionary, Scrabble, Yahtzee or some such thing whilst the younger kids would generally run around and create as much noise, havoc and mess as they could manage. Clean up is quite a task after the last one leaves for the own homes.

Most years that we have been in the US, we would have a fire in the fireplace. I t was always a log fire – oak or ash mainly, but 12 years or so ago, we converted to a gas fireplace; and a few years ago converted it to a vent-free system to conserve far more of the heat. Fireplaces are notorious places for a net heat-loss when a home has forced-air heat too. I miss the smell and crackle from the log fires, but not the work entailed hauling the logs in and the ashes out. Many years ago I occasionally put a few lumps of coal on the log fire - to boost the Btu output. No, they were not lumps that Santa may have brought, but lumps that I brought from the mines that I visited during my work. The West Virginia and Kentucky coal was better than the Illinois coal that tended to be more fissile, shaly and prone to ‘spit’.

Some of the memories of our earlier years in the US still persist and we partake in them with the grandchildren. One such event two or three years ago was an elaborate ‘Nativity Story’ in a large (several thousand congregation) ‘non-denominational’ church that went ‘whole hog’ and included live sheep, ‘Mary’s donkey’ and even a real camel or two parading around the pews! Some communities or municipalities have ‘light shows’ where for $8 or so, you can drive your car through the ‘winter wonderland’ of millions of twinkling lights. Of course, many individual home owners, whether in the ‘inner city’ or in the ‘suburbs’ (estates as they say in the UK) decorate the outside of their own homes with lights and ornaments. There are lots of families like the Griswalds here! We choose to limit our ‘ornaments’ to those of a religious nature – manger scenes with plastic (and internally illuminated) holy family members. My kids, when they were small used to call it ‘The Jesus Set’. Two years ago I made a virtually two-dimensional wooden manger scene – painted white and illuminated with a bright spotlight!  Many people elect the secular option – with illuminated (and sometimes inflated and motor-activated) reindeer, snowmen and Santas.

Christmas, for many households in the US starts and ends in that 30-hour period encompassing the 25th. For many others, including ourselves (though at a ‘low-piety’ level), it begins on the first day of Advent and lasts until January 6th – n the end of the period more widely known for the whimsical song, ‘ The Twelve Days of Christmas’. Such is the more ‘Meaning of Christmas’ in much of the US – and I dare say, in much of the modern Christian world. I sense a segue coming on!

Ireland – “Finally’ you say! There, in ‘Holy Ireland’, as it is (well, ‘used to be’) often called, Christmastime in my wife’s childhood days had an almost exclusively religious meaning. Not just out of a lack of wealth, but more out of a better understanding of the true meaning, people in rural Ireland would express themselves less with gifts and showy garlands, but more with reverence, humility and grace. I was there once, at Christmastime, but that was in the early ‘70s and much of the tradition had seemingly already gone – though my lasting recollection was that the pubs were still all closed on Christmas Day. The following descriptions of Christmastime in Ireland – especially rural Ireland – are based on my wife’s recollections and from music and stories I have come to know. My wife hails from a small town – the first on the River Shannon – that had a population of 80 souls and 8 pubs!  But that is another story for another time. Suffice it to say – it was rural.

She recalls that every house – she knew almost them all, as her parents operated the local Post Office, and she often pedaled her bicycle miles into the countryside to deliver telegrams to the scattered homes in the town-land. Every house had lots of holly sprigs at Christmas – I’m sure all with bright red berries. She tells of the old huge fireplace – with hobs on either side, each decorated with a large (3 foot tall) wide red candle that would be lit a few days before Christmas and let burn until a few days afterwards. Each house – and from her front window, you see many across the river and on the mountainside, had a tall white candle placed in the window on Christmas Eve. Its purpose was . . . well, you’ll hear of that, and the message of 'The Meaning of Christmas' in this song, 'The Kerry Christmas Carol', by Tim Dennehy:

I asked about presents. She, the eldest of the 5, said that she had none in her pre-teen years but recalls collecting a ‘few coppers’ and going with her brother across the bridge to the local ‘merchant-of-all-goods’ shop and buying a few small toys for her younger siblings. They had no Christmas tree in the house – until, at the age of 13, she went out by herself and sawed one down from the hill above the house. Of course, everybody attended Mass on Christmas – as they did every Sunday and Holy Day - and there surely were more rosaries said in the home than there were carols sung. The huge fireplace, stacked with turf (peat) was the lifeline of the home. It provided not only heat to warm the bare, stoned-floored house, but without its constant companions, large black kettles and posts, no hot water for cleansing dishes, clothes – or bodies!  The fire was also the place over which large cast-iron pots hung and in which the daily food was cooked. Large pots!  She tells me their Christmas turkey was often a 27-pounder! Perhaps a better understanding of Christmas in rural Ireland , back in our childhood days can be 'experienced' by immersing yourselves in this story, 'Us Small Boys', told by Eamon Kelly: 

In Wales, the day after Christmas is called Boxing Day – you can ‘Google’ that to discover its origin and meaning. In the US, it has no official name, but is traditionally the day upon which ungrateful and misjudged people, along with the greedy and frugal, flock to the stores to return gifts they didn’t want, that do not fit or to find bargains on items on sale – such as all the left over trees and decorations that they’ll use next year. Such is the commercialism associated with the season. In Ireland, the 26th of December is known as St Stephen’s Day – but basically the tradition of receiving visitors on that day is the same as the UK’s ‘Boxing Day’. The practice of receiving visitors also persisted throughout the 12 days of Christmas and on January 6th – known in Ireland as ‘Little Christmas’, it was customary to have a big feast (no doubt another gloomy day for 27 pound turkeys) – in honor of the celebration of the Epiphany, the day marking the visitation of the magi to the Christ-child.       

 I don’t mean to appear disparaging of the US celebrations of Christmas, it is after all a country with a population having a higher percentage of ‘professing Christians’ than the UK and many European countries. It also has organizations actively promoting the ‘Keep Christ in Christmas’ cause. That is the true meaning of Christmas, and we would do well to be mindful of that – and if not subscribing to the Christian theology, we should at least try to emulate the message of ‘love thy neighbor’, etc.

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