By Maureen Kalbus
Sheltering at home with our Christmas tree sparkling in the corner beside the fire, Christmas décor and poinsettias strategically placed in each room, Christmas cards bedecking shelves and surfaces, and Christmas music filling the house, I am caught up in this lovely season. I am looking forward to Christmas services, and, with Ralph, creating new traditions this year.
Christmas has always been my favorite time of year. Since my childhood in Northern Ireland, I have reveled in the decorating, present buying, wrapping, and card writing in anticipation of the family gatherings, present swapping and feasts. The days darkened mid- afternoon, so the lighted Christmas trees in windows really were beacons. We had Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, to thank for bringing the idea of indoor decorated trees from Germany to U.K. The tree decorations reflected the Christmas story: a star, angels, Nativity characters, lights and Wise Men. Presents were given, originating from the Wise Men’s gift giving, and God’s gift of His Son to mankind. In our family, we created a village snow scene under the tree. We had paper decorations hanging from the living room ceiling, Christmas cards strung on ribbons, and holly, ivy and mistletoe perched above paintings on the walls.
In the weeks before Christmas, my brother and I would be taken, on different occasions, to departmental stores in Belfast by our grandparents, aunt and parents to meet Santa Claus. We would excitedly wait in line to board a spaceship which transported us to Santa’s Grotto. He heard our wishes and the elves gave us each a present. On Christmas Eve, with our parents, we would visit relatives’ homes, exchanging presents, sharing tasty suppers and singing carols around pianos. Before going to bed, we would hang one of our Mum’s stockings on the fireplace, and leave Santa a treat. On Christmas morning, we gathered at the top of the stairs and descended together into the Living room, to see what Santa had left for us. Always in the toe of the stocking there was an apple and an orange. While my grandparents were alive, we joined them for our turkey dinner, followed by plum pudding and custard/ trifle/ hot mince pies and shortbread. Crackers were at each place setting, and, when pulled, a paper hat, printed jokes and a small gift would fly out. The wonderful reality in the U.K. is that the celebration goes on into Boxing Day, with more family gatherings and feasting. The origin is believed to emanate from rich, Upper class homes, where the servants were given the 26th off so that they could visit their families, taking with them leftovers in boxes to share.
The Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in most churches, preceded Christmas, and was memorable. In the church we attended, St. Finnian’s, the whole service was conducted by candlelight. The Carol Services originated in Truro Cathedral in Cornwall in 1880, and told the story of the fall of humanity, the promise of the Messiah, and the birth of Jesus. In 1918, to draw people back to church and bring light to a darkened world after World War1, Dean Eric Milner introduced the Nine Lessons and Carols to King’s College Cambridge, and their outstanding vocal tradition has been perpetuated ever since.
An outing to the theatre to see a Pantomime was also a Christmas tradition. The musical/comedy/ drama based on a fairy tale, and designed for family entertainment, was produced in towns and cities. It included singing, dancing, slapstick comedy, and the expectation of audience participation with sing- a- longs and shout- out phrases interspersed. The main roles comprised a Principal Boy [played by a young woman], a Principal Girl, a Dame [played by a middle- aged man in drag], a Comic Lead, Good Fairy and Villain.
Have you been reminiscing Christmases past? Growing up, what were your family traditions? Have you passed them on? Do you continue them?
My best ever Christmas was in 1997! On a wild Christmas Eve, Ralph and I drove to the Giant’s Causeway on Ireland’s north coast. It is a World Heritage site, and my favorite place on earth. Comprising tens of thousands of hexagonal basalt columns, it is amazing! Folklore tells us that the giant, Finn Mac Cool lived there, and there’s proof! Along the Causeway, you can see rock formations the shape of his boot, the pipes of the organ he played, and his armchair. Local tradition deems that if you sit in the chair and close your eyes to take a wish, it will come true. That Christmas Eve, the sky was as black as your boot, but, as we walked the path into the Causeway, the rain abated. We slithered across the stones to reach the armchair, and had to time sitting down between waves, so that we weren’t swept away. I leapt into the armchair, and when I opened my eyes, Ralph was on his knee, clutching a diamond ring between his fingers. My “yes” was accompanied by the roar of waves, but we jumped out of their path, and headed back to my parents in Belfast. Throughout our vacation, we were greeted with celebrations and champagne, and, with family, planned our July wedding.
My most unusual Christmas was the one I spent in Australia, just after I emigrated. Being in the Southern Hemisphere, the heat in Sydney was intense. However, keeping to Irish traditions, I cooked a turkey. The additional heat from the oven was overpowering. In desperation, at one point, I opened the fridge door, pulled up a chair, and sat with my head and arms inside!! On Christmas day, I was invited for Christmas lunch …to the beach. It was thronged with families who were serving cold meals, and had lugged their presents to be shared. During the afternoon, I saw Santa Claus in his full regalia, bulging sack over his shoulder, walking through the waves on the beach! In subsequent years, I flew home to Northern Ireland to spend Christmas and my summer vacation. The school year had just ended, and after Speech Day, and the school’s wonderful Carol Service in Sydney’s St. Andrew’s Cathedral, I was asleep on the tarmac before the plane took off!
This year, while reminiscing about Christmases past, Ralph and I have been adapting the traditions that we have generated over the last eleven years in San Rafael, where we have celebrated Christmas since my parents passed away. A highlight will be our participation in the church’s Christmas Eve Service of Lessons and Carols, after which we will sit by our tree and open our Irish presents. Christmas maintains its magic. We delight in sharing it together, and will be reaching out to family through a series of Zoom gatherings.
Do you have favorite Christmas Carols?
Carols I love to hear are “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night” and many other lovely Carols spring to mind:
From Chaucer’s day, song collector Cecil Sharp resurrected
“The holly and the ivy, When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood, The holly bears the crown.
The rising of the sun And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ Sweet singing in the choir.”
Edward Caswalls’ “See amid the winter’s snow Born for us on earth below,
See the tender lamb appears, Promised from eternal years!
Hail. Thou ever -blessed morn! Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!
Sing through all Jerusalem: Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
The much loved, anonymous “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The Little lord Jesus laid down His sweet head;
The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay.
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.”
Christina Rossetti’s “In the bleak mid-Winter Frosty wind made moan…
A stable place sufficed The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ…
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air; But only His mother In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved with a kiss.
What can I give him, Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man I would do my part;
Yet what can I give Him- Give him my heart.”
Warmest wishes as, despite the changing world around us, we are caught up in the constancy of the marvelous mystery of the birth of the Messiah, and the eternal hope that brings us.