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In the never ending quest for something fresh and new, the candle industry delves into old fragrances for this Christmas. Available this year is "Carmelite," a blend of mossy stonewall church convents. Also, there is a "new" holiday candle "Melchior," named for none other than one of the Three Wise Men. Enrobed in a gold-leaf vessel, the $98 candle by Cire Trudon of France wafts with the scent of myrrh and other nostalgia herbs. Old is fashionable.
Memo to candle-makers: according to tradition, myrrh was a bitter perfume breathing life of gathering gloom, a hint of the stone-cold tomb. For the rest of us, any cathedral candle or small votive with a blend of clove, cinnamon, pomegranate out-sells all others. Scent is supposed to be the most nostalgic of senses. At Christmas the smells and bells remind us of childhood memories.
Tradition holds that Christmas is "at home." Here we can unveil our own traditions. Our parishes also have their traditions. Our church, St. Lawrence in Brookline, is a beehive of activity at this time of year. Food is gathered for the shelters; toys and sports equipment are provided to a needy family. A volunteer takes the Santa Secret Wishes and creates a felt board of items. Parishioners select the gifts they wish to purchase. Or, maybe something you treasured as a child, or something you always wanted and were now able to give to another child. All gifts are placed on the steps near the altar in a splendid array.
Christmas Eve Mass at our church is (mercifully) at 5:30 p.m., when music begins and pews are filled. Lighted long tapers and bows adorn the pews. This idea was suggested some years ago by newly ordained, Father John Healy, who came from our parish and is continued by Paul Murphy and family. The sense of wonder is enhanced as we enter a darkened church and the stained glass windows become even more prominent.
The music is magnificent at our church. Under the talented direction of Warren Hutchinson, we sing old and new carols and hymns. Some parishes go caroling in the neighborhood. When we first moved to the Boston area, St. Ignatius carolers came to our door as we were the new people on the block.
A carol, says Julian, the English hymnologist, is a song of joy originally accompanying a dance. Although they were frowned upon by the Church and were long excluded from worship, they have always been popular. We all grew up learning carols, even if we mispronounced the words. Some of us even learned carols in public schools.
Theresa Lungu remembers her Zambian Christmas. Christmas day was Mass with carols sung in English and the local dialect. Afterward a "western" feast of rice, chicken, beer and cola, with cakes whenever possible. She received new clothes which were always worn to church. Friends and neighbors would stop by to say "Christmas" and share food and laughter. Theresa currently collects books for children in Zambia.
Ann Kirrane remembers Christmas growing up in Panama. She was not a cradle Catholic, and she regrets not having a Holy Christmas like ones she has experienced since coming to Boston. In the Canal Zone, Christmas was celebrated by decorating the outside of houses with colored lights and manger figures. She went caroling in a big old truck with a piano in the back for accompaniment and a chaperone. In the years when the shipment of Christmas trees from Canada did not arrive on time, they decorated a potted palm tree.
Christmas Eve was time for religious services. Collections of food and clothing were taken up for the poor in Colon and Panama City. Santa arrived by helicopter to hand out candy. Children in the Canal Zone did not expect or receive many gifts, perhaps, candied fruits and cookies or simple clothing ordered from the Sears Roebuck catalog. If a real tree was placed inside a home, it had only a brief existence, given that the climate dried them out quickly. At New Years, children collected the trees from the villages for a big bonfire when hot dogs and marshmallows were roasted.
From one of our immigrant families, the tradition of placing a potato or orange under the tree continues to be followed. Our father's farm family was so poor that the only gift the four children received at Christmas was an orange with a dime in it (a good year) or a potato with a nickel (a poor year). This story serves to remind children how their ancestors lived.
All through Advent our son-in-law daily gathers the children and then conducts the figures of Wise Men bearing their gold, frankincense and myrrh over fields and mountains. The three kings begin at the far corner of the room and make their daily progress toward the creche. Their arrival in robed splendor means that it is Epiphany.
Not to be overlooked are the Twelfth Night celebrations. This period between December 26 and January 6 is not only time for merrymaking and breaking the Advent fast but of all sorts of masquerading and role reversals. On Childermas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28) it was customary to have the youngest member of the family or religious community serve as its head for the day or at least to receive some kind of special attention. Catholics in the Middle Ages delighted in events like "Boy Bishop's Feast" and the "Fest of Fools" in which someone was made a "bishop" for a week and made sport of.
To our minds, the best creches not only display the Holy Family in the manger, shepherds in their fields with adoring angels, but also a backdrop of the crumbled Roman forum. What more dramatic contrasting image is there of the passing of the old order and the new world beginning with the birth of Christ.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline.