The Ghost of Christmas Past
“The experience of Christmas as we had in those days helped lift my spirit to a new height”. In this interview Pauline O’Regan reflects on her experience of Christmas, as child and as adult.
“In my heart Christmas was the great feast – and it still is!”
As a child I lived in the Inangahua Valley near Reefton and we had Mass only twice a month, but we always had a morning Mass on Christmas Day. So the religious aspect of Christmas didn’t have quite the impact on us as children as it would have done if we had lived in the town and had been able to get to midnight Mass.
There were no local shops – but each year before Christmas Farmer’s Catalogue would arrive, a huge tome ranging in contents from tractors and farm machinery of every kind at one end to children’s toys at the other. Our parents took note of what we as children were keen on.
I remember being captivated by a small blackboard and easel. Of course I had no idea how much such a thing would cost. In the late ’20s things at home were sufficiently tight that we would not receive gifts that cost very much. The blackboard and easel was a ‘pipe dream’. However, on Christmas morning there it was set up in the fireplace: my destiny to become a teacher was foreordained!
For Christmas dinner we would alternate – one year we would have a goose, the next a turkey. The day after Christmas my father held a ‘bone-picking party’ for all the local menfolk. The remnants of the Christmas turkey were set out and there was plenty of liquid refreshment. We children were packed off to bed early.
But we tried to stay awake to hear the singing. At a certain moment Jack O’Malley would strike up. He was a local character. He had one leg shorter than the other and hopped along on a sort of stirrup attached to his shoe. He was a figure of curiosity to us – but at the bone-picking party Jack always shone, because he had a fine voice. That was a highlight of Christmas back home.
At the local school I have no recollection of Christmas celebrations. Perhaps that was a remnant of the ‘secular’ nature of New Zealand education. I remember we had an end-of-year party where we all dressed up. Aged five, I was set on being a fairy. My mother explained to me that I was not a fairy, not like Olive Smith who had fair, curly hair. Mine was short and straight and black! I was to be a cupid, equipped with a bow and a box of red arrows on my back. So I learned early that with my stocky figure and black hair, I was not destined to be a fairy. It was an early ‘reality check’ for me. However, Mr O’Malley, who was the local capitalist, rewarded us with a prize of half a crown each – fairies and cupids alike!
In the convent
Christmas in the convent was quite different. For someone like myself who had never experienced either the sense of expectation during the season of Advent or even been to Midnight Mass, Christmas took on a much richer meaning. It was a ‘magical’ time and I was quite captivated by it.
The old Timaru convent originally had belonged to the Sacré Coeur Sisters and was a beautiful monastic edifice, modelled, so we were told, on a Sacré Coeur convent somewhere in Europe. The chapel itself was a fine building. The entire back wall was painted with angels swinging censers. It had been done by one of the Sacré Coeur nuns, Mother Crotty, who also had many paintings on the convent walls. It was such a gift to have artwork of that calibre all around us.
The oak stalls had come from France. The golden tone of the polished woodwork matched the local kauri. During Advent the whole place was cleaned until it was spotless and shining. There was a special red carpet – for Christmas and Easter. The place was filled with flowers, and the scent of the Christmas lilies was specially distinctive.
More than anything else I remember the music. Mother Mercedes was a brilliant musician, and she drew music out of us. In her choir, we all sang and were delighted to raise our voices for the praise of God. We were a community of some 30 professed Sisters, plus the 15 or so novices. We filled the chapel. We had our own pipe organ. On the dot of twelve we sang Silent Night. And at the end we sang Adeste Fideles.
Such a magnificent experience of Christmas as we had in those days helped lift my spirit to a new height. It seemed to bring ‘heaven’ closer. Even though Easter – as we were taught, quite correctly – was the ‘feast of feasts’, I only accept that from the neck up. Christ rising on Easter Day I accept as wonderful too. But the Resurrection is an event of faith and appeals more at the adult level.
Especially in my early years it was the birth of the Saviour that really made an impact on me. In my heart, Christmas was the great feast and it still is. I think it has to do with a baby. There is a suspension of credulity – that God could become a baby. The birth of a baby is an everyday event, a natural event. Yet it is also part of the experience of the Son of God. It is something which attracts us even when we are quite young. At Christmas, every Christian home will have crib: even some who are not practising Christians will have one.
The Christmas music too raises my heart. Some people complain because we hear carols continuously in supermarkets and city malls. Personally I never tire of them; I can’t have enough of it! I love to hear the words Christ is Born! being proclaimed in public for all to hear. I rejoice whenever I hear the Christmas message – even in November.
Where else is the story being told to the children and to people who receive no teaching? It’s a great event that matters in our lives. There is no other time when these realities are expressed. What a desert people live in if they haven’t got a story of faith, something to give meaning to what can be quite hard and difficult lives.
The Crib and the holy family
The crib, I believe, is very important and our crib in the Timaru convent was quite splendid. Even the animals were present, and this helps people see also the caring presence of God for the beasts as well, at the moment of redemption. The sight of the new-born babe in the midst of animals and nature gives dignity to all those present, including the donkey.
Joseph was very much in the background of my early religious experience. I was once with a Sister who was troubled by a family problem. I had a holy picture with the words on it: “Go to Joseph”. It fell out of my bag while I was talking. I said: there’s the answer. And since that time I have often prayed to St Joseph in his protective role.
God trusted Joseph to protect the mother and the babe. I think we have boxed Joseph up by pushing him into the role of being simply the patron of a happy death. Yet he is so much more. After all he was the male role model of Jesus as a young man growing up.
There is a picture I love – of Mary lying resting after the birth and Joseph holding the baby. I pray for a true devotion to Mary. I struggle with the way she has been traditionally presented to us. I think a lot of humanity has been diminished by trying to put her up so high that she loses her intimacy.
I like to pray the Rosary and dwell on the mysteries of Jesus’ life and Mary’s life. I’m sure Jesus would have danced at the marriage feast of Cana! And Mary had a profound message for us: “Do whatever he tells you”. She was a typical mother and was not going to be put off by her son’s reluctance to do what she asked!
Paul VI wrote a beautiful piece on Mary which has always appealed to me. He was anxious about extremes and distortions in devotion to Mary. The Pope laid out four guidelines:
• Devotion must be based on Mary as she is found in the Scriptures;
• it must the kind of practice that is at home in good liturgy;
• it must show sensitivity to our relationship with other churches;
• it must be appropriate for the times we live in.
Making Mary into a ‘Queen’ takes her right out of normality. It is the woman Mary I wish to honour – Mary as a human being, not as a remote, regal figure. The church tells us that any true devotion to our blessed Mother must first and foremost be based on the sacred Scriptures, not on private revelations however attractive they may be.
The fatherhood of Joseph
The Biblical portrait of Joseph recalls the marginalised Dad of too many families today.
Glynn Cardy makes a plea for taking a new, healthier look at the contemporary work ethic – restoring ‘Joseph’ to a more hands-on family role
Our little Nativity scene at home has a rather vacant Joseph. He’s holding his little china staff and staring out into the lounge seemingly oblivious of the pantomime happening around him. Everyone else of course is focused on the smiling babe in the beatific mother’s arms. Joseph is also missing half his foot – the result of exuberant children. I think that happened the year the toy ninjas took on the shepherds, and Joseph was collateral damage.
The Joseph of the Bible is also rather vacant. Matthew gives him the biggest write up. In Chapter 1 we are told that he has an important genealogy, a pregnant fiancée and an angelic visitation. We are also told that being a just and decent man, without the angelic intervention he would have dumped Mary. ‘Just and decent’ meant something else back then.
In Chapter 2 we don’t hear about Joseph until there is trouble. Bethlehem is getting too hot for a babe who scares Herod. So Joseph gets another angelic visitation and a trip to Egypt, mode of transport unknown. Some time later in Egypt the angel came calling and Joseph led them home – home being Nazareth. In Chapter 3 onwards Joseph doesn’t feature. ...Oh, save that there’s one reference to Jesus as the “carpenter’s son”.
Luke’s Joseph doesn’t appear until Chapter 2. Joseph doesn’t get any private interviews with angels in this book. He is again portrayed however as a travelling man.
Starting in Nazareth he takes the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem. Joseph is a bystander as the baby is born; shepherds visit, Simeon and Anna sing their praises and Jesus the teenager gets lost downtown. Apart from Joseph’s name being in the genealogy in Chapter 3 he again disappears without trace from the rest of another Gospel.
For Mark, John, Paul and all the other New Testament writers Joseph doesn’t feature at all. He is the absent father, totally usurped by the one Jesus calls ‘abba’ – ‘daddy’, God.
The Nativity accounts generally are not known for their historicity. Biblical scholars tell us that Joseph is probably a fiction, a literary device. The genealogies are about aligning the man Jesus with past characters and events. The travels are likewise about aligning Jesus with King David (Bethlehem) and Moses (Egypt). The key drama of the Nativity is the scandal of an unmarried pregnant woman in an age that presumed her sexual infidelity or violation or both. Joseph sits on the sideline, reluctant to do anything until angelically prodded.
The Joseph in my family’s little Nativity scene is similar to the Biblical depiction. He doesn’t quite get what’s going on. He’s brought into the picture when something needs doing – usually taking someone somewhere. He’s around at the beginning but then gets written out of the family as the story progresses. Nobody seems to care whether he’s happy, sad, or lost half his foot. He says nothing that anyone takes notice of. The portrayal of Joseph is also remarkably similar to the sad, child-father experience of many.
The painting by Murillo of the Holy Family in 17th century Spain is attractive for its depiction of a Joseph playing with his young son. Here is the fathering we would like. Dad’s not at the office, on the computer or busy cooking dinner. Instead he’s engaging, smiling and enjoying himself and us. Dad doesn’t look worried about money, success or the lack of it. Here is ‘the playful Dad.’
As a parent of four children I know something of the tensions surrounding fatherhood. Work and parenting collide. Household chores and playing with kids collide. Supervising homework and reading bedtime stories collide. Church meetings and children’s needs collide. A social life outside of children or work is pretty much non-existent. Time is the thing we wish we had more of and that we see slipping away as the children grow older.
Although these tensions are ones that individual fathers have to wrestle with and find their own way through, there are things that workplaces and churches should consider. Given that the critical time for school-age children to be with their fathers is between 3.30 and 8 pm on weekdays, how can places of work assist?
The council that oversees the Auckland Diocese, for example, in order to allow for those who travel from afar, meets each month on a Thursday from 4 pm to 7 pm. It’s not ‘father friendly’. Or ‘mother friendly’, for that matter. Most downtown legal practices have a work culture that frequently sees parents come home around 8 pm. They are not father or mother friendly either. All the Anglican bishops I know work horrendous hours. When will we start creating jobs that are nurturing of those who are in them and their families, and model nurturing to the community?
I think churches and businesses need to take a long-term approach to their employees and work practices. If we are serious about sup-porting families and raising children who know both parents, then we need to make flexible work schedules and lower our expectations. The world won’t come to an end if we work less and play with children more. God might even smile.
Parenting is good training for the workplace and needs to be recognised as such. Parenting is like running a small business, with all the associated demands. You have to be a self-starter. You have to be considerate of your ‘clients’, otherwise they will smear that vegemite sandwich all over the couch. You have to find the right gentle words when all you really want to do is scream. You have to manage time well. It’s no wonder that some Christians call their priest “Father” or “Mother”.
It’s difficult to find positive examples of fathering in the Bible and the Christian tradition. Dads who put their kids before their calling are non-existent in the Bible, as are those who see their kids as their calling. The patriarchs and kings are shining examples of how not to parent. The prophets and disciples don’t seem to have kids. I can’t name one saint who is revered because of the way he loved his children. Like it or not, the church is not programmed to be affirming of intimate loving relationships between fathers and their children.
Yet there are many of us who work and hope for a different future. We try hard to give our children not only financial and physical support, but our love and a glimpse into our souls. We try to walk with them, repelling the incessant demands of our workplaces. We try to find time. We try to believe the church supports us in this, when like any institution what it says is different from what it does.
This Christmas, the broken-footed vacant Joseph will once again come out of his box and take his place by the crib. I will look at him and remember the sad stories of many men who wished for intimate relationships with their children but couldn’t have them. I will pray for the fathers I know and for myself. But this year I’ll also put Murillo’s picture there, a sign of hope and a commitment to making it happen.