My father was a great man for celebrating Christmas. He loved to decorate the Christmas tree and was always buying new sets of interesting lights. I remember the coloured ‘sputniks’ and the icicle lights. One year he hung Christmas tree baubles from the wooden beams that ran along the ceiling in the hallway of our house in Dublin. He was always thinking up new ways to display the Christmas cards.
My father loved to create things, especially out of wood, and he was always working on different projects. He would get an idea in his mind and then try to bring it to life by seeing if he could make it.
I remember one time that he decided to make a Christmas crib out of a large cardboard box. He asked my mother if she had any cotton wool. In those days every house had a roll of cotton wool that came wrapped in blue paper. My father wanted the blue paper to use on the outside of the box to create a Christmas cave with a window at the back. I am not sure what he did with the cotton wool but he covered the box in the blue paper and then painted and decorated the outside of the crib and added various bits of greenery for effect.
But the ingenious thing about this crib, and probably the idea that started my father on the project in the first place, was the back window. When you looked in at the mouth of the cave, you could see the three wise men in the distance through the back window. It was clear that they were out beyond the confines of the cardboard box.
What was not clear, was how my father had created this effect. I remember one neighbour who called over, looking into the cave, then looking at the back of the cave on the outside, then looking in again, and then looking at the outside again and waving their hand up and down at the back. They were completely baffled and could not figure out how the wise men were clearly out beyond the confines of the box my father had used to create the crib.
Of course we children eventually worked it out. The back window was actually a small oblong mirror onto which my father had painted a window frame with a cross piece which gave the impression of four panes of glass. He installed this in a piece of cardboard and then set it at an angle inside the cave at the back.
Above the door of the cave he had glued a Christmas card on which were depicted the three wise men riding their camels. He then adjusted the angle of the mirror window, so that when you looked into the mouth of the cave, you would look through the window and see the wise men approaching from the distance.
It was one of the highlights of our Christmas that year and we delighted in showing it to our friends who called over for a visit. When they could not figure it out we would eventually wiggle our fingers above the entrance of the cave and you would see them in the mirror at the back, thus revealing the illusion.
What brought this to my mind was that I love playing Christmas music at this time of year. My father had a large collection of vinyl Christmas records and one of the most popular was Bert Kaempfert’s, ‘Christmas Wonderland’. Bert Kaempfert was a German, who introduced an electric bass guitar into his orchestra and played jazz arrangements of popular tunes.
My father died on the 10th of December 1995. Bert Kaempfert’s Christmas Wonderland album is pure supermarket music, but every year since my father died, when I play this, I am transported back to our house in Dublin at Christmastime. I see my father in our sitting room. He is wearing his grey jumper with the diamond patterns on the front. He has just finished putting some coal on the fire and has turned around and is looking at me. I am not sure if this is a real memory, or one of those composite memories where the brain re-arranges our memories to form an image, but I get great comfort from this happy image and from the Christmas music.
I realise that I was very blessed to be raised in a loving Catholic home where Christmas was a very special time. As the years go by, I know that many others were not as fortunate as I was, and that for many, Christmas can be a time of sorrow and of unhappy memories.
I also realise the power of music and other stimuli to evoke strong childhood memories and I realised many years ago, that I wanted to instil some of these memories in my own children. I also realised that we have a great opportunity to create specifically Catholic memories while our children are young.
Part of this journey involved the ‘big fellow’, who usually pays a visit on Christmas eve to bring presents, when everyone is asleep. My attitude to the ‘big fellow’ has changed over the years. In our early married life, Christmas at our house was much the same as everyone else’s.
But one year, we were quite poor coming up to Christmas. I was on final notice for being late paying the phone bill and it looked like Christmas dinner would consist of minced beef and vegetables.
Getting Christmas presents for the children (we had at least six at this time) was simply not going to be possible. For a fleeting instance, the thought of going to a money lender to borrow money crossed my mind. I didn’t want to deprive my children of what I thought were the joys of Christmas.
I decided against this option and we received a lovely letter from the ‘big fellow’ telling us that he had a very tight schedule that year and would we mind waiting until ‘little Christmas’, January 6th, for him to deliver our presents. Of course, we were happy to oblige, anything for the ‘big fellow’. What my children did not realise was that the children’s allowance was due a few days before ‘little Christmas’.
But this started me thinking on the things that are really important. I remembered one night earlier that year, when some of the children got a tummy bug. I think my wife was either pregnant or nursing a young child at the time. Anyway, late at night, we heard one of the children crying and calling out ‘Dad, Dad’.
Because of my wife’s situation, I could not play the, ‘pretend to be asleep and see if she gets up’, game, so I dragged myself out of bed and headed up the corridor just in time to see one of our children spew vomit all over the carpeted floor.
I grabbed the child and made for the bathroom and started the clean-up operation. Suddenly, I heard another child moaning and crying out. Leaving the first child half dressed, I raced to their bedroom and managed to get this one to the bathroom with mouth pointed at the toilet before the inevitable happened. Shortly thereafter, I had to go through the whole process a third time, as another child also had the tummy bug. These are the things family memories are made of.
I eventually got the children settled, cleaned up the stinking mess, and managed to get back to bed. But as I reflected on this life event later on in the run up to Christmas, I realised that the ‘big fellow’ never showed up to give me a helping hand that night. Here he was taking all the credit at Christmas for some wonderful gifts, but apart from that, he wasn’t much use.
So I made a bargain with the ‘big fellow’. He could still visit our house on Christmas eve, but he was only allowed to bring a book each for the children. The bigger gifts for the children would come from their Mom and Dad. This was proper order.
I also realised that the ‘big fellow’ had not only usurped the place of Mom and Dad, he had also usurped the place of the Christ child in our home at Christmas. This had to change, and it did change the year after I attended a five day silent retreat using the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, in a Benedictine monastery in France. From that year on, the ‘big fellow’ was banished from our home.
But it was not enough to banish the ‘big fellow’, we needed to bring the Christ child back to the centre of our Christmas celebrations. We needed to establish a new Lacken family, Christmas tradition.
We were fond of attending the midnight Holy Mass on Christmas Eve. After we returned from Holy Mass, each of our eight children was handed an unlit candle and told to go to Mom and Dad’s bedroom. When we got there, our youngest child was handed the baby Jesus for the main crib in our home. In order not to cause any jealousy, the two youngest boys were also handed a baby Jesus for the other two cribs that we had.
All the lights were extinguished in the house and then I lit our large Christmas candle. My wife and I lit our candles from the Christmas candle and then each of the children lit their candles from the Christmas candle. We then processed throughout the house singing ‘away in a manger’. When we got to the main crib, my youngest daughter Noemi, placed the child Jesus in the crib. The first year we did this was Christmas 2005, and we have done it every year since then with little developments along the way. One of those developments is, that after the baby Jesus is placed in the crib, I, as the father of the family, read the Christmas narrative from chapter two of St Luke’s Gospel.
“And it came to pass, that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled.
This enrolling was first made by Cyrinus, the governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child.
And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds watching, and keeping the night watches over their flock.
And behold an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of God shone round about them; and they feared with a great fear. And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people: For, this day, is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying: Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will. And it came to pass, after the angels departed from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another: Let us go over to Bethlehem, and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord has showed to us.
And they came with haste; and they found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. And seeing, they understood of the word that had been spoken to them concerning this child. And all that heard, wondered; and at those things that were told them by the shepherds.
But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God, for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.” (Luke 2:1-20)
Afterwards, we wish each other a merry Christmas and then we head to the kitchen for hot chocolate with mini marshmallows, we cut the Christmas cake and we chat until the wee hours of the morning. We have been joined by friends on some occasions.
One year, we travelled down to Limerick for the midnight Mass and we were very tired on arriving home, probably at around three in the morning. We went to bed without having the usual procession. However, we were all woken at around six in the morning by one of the children who insisted that we do the procession with the baby Jesus while it was still dark. I then knew that a Catholic family tradition had been established and I am looking forward to it again this year.
Another tradition from my own family was, that on Christmas eve, my father would leave the house on his own at around four o’clock in the afternoon. He would head over to the Cornelscourt shopping centre in the hope of picking up some Christmas bargains. Maybe some tinselly Christmas decorations would be reduced at the last minute, or some Christmas tree lights.
I also do this on Christmas Eve. On that fateful Christmas when we were quite poor, I happened to be in Dunnes Stores on Christmas Eve at around five in the evening. An announcement came across the loudspeakers, “all fresh Christmas turkeys are now half price”.
Well, as you can imagine, I lost no time and charged over to the refrigerated cabinets and picked out a half price turkey. I was as proud as punch that year when I strode in the door with the Christmas turkey in hand. We had a wonderful Christmas dinner that year after all. God is good.
I also had a tradition of making a new crib each year from scratch when the children were young, and I would involve the children in the project, getting a new crib ready for the Christmas night family procession.
I would encourage Catholic families to think about establishing their own Catholic family traditions, if you have not done so already. Especially at Christmas time where, if we are not careful, the commercial aspect will overshadow Christ’s birth and Jesus will not be invited to His own birthday party.
There is still room for Christmas trees, and other decorations and even for Bert Kaempfert, In our family, he is always played when we start to decorate the Christmas tree.
I pray that when any of my own children have families, that the Christmas tradition of the youngest child processing the child Jesus to the crib will be handed down. When I am dead, I pray that the memories of these Christmas processions will live long after I am gone and who knows, maybe this tradition will last for generations to come.
May I take this opportunity to wish each and every one of you all the blessings of the Christmas season and I pray that the new year, 2022, will also bring abundant blessings to all of you.
I would also like to thank you for your ongoing support of Catholic Voice and The Lumen Fidei Institute. We could not continue without your support.
May God bless you and all those you love.