Blowin’ In: Illumination
By Susan Mangan
My mother brought light to Christmas. Our Chicago bungalow did not allow the sun to peer brightly through the windows. Built stout and sturdy, the homes in our neighborhood stood like toy soldiers ready to take on the Nutcracker’s Mouse King.
December days were dark by 4:30, but my home was lit with festive lights in every room. Our tree, a rainbow in winter, stood by our grandfather clock.
I would lie beneath it when I was small and look up into the branches imagining I was saintly like our Mother Mary or Bernadette. I was not. Oftentimes, after my parents went to sleep, I would look for Christmas presents, shaking boxes and upending closets.
I will never forget that Christmas when my mother wanted to surprise my dad with a new cribbage board and the pegs to the game were nowhere to be found. Little did they know, I found the cribbage set next to the Mousetrap game I longed for and thought it was mine.
Curious, I took out the pieces and tried to create an image with the pegs on the board. Meanwhile, I heard my mother open the basement door and I quickly tucked the game away, dispersing the pegs all over the floor, forever lost among the boxes and crates in which the presents were hidden.
Like any good Catholic child, I felt guilty and lay beneath the tree, looking at the colorful lights and praying that one day I could still be canonized as a saint. My life did not prove beatific, but I did find the pegless board tucked into a box among the heirlooms my mother left for me. Perhaps my mother knew of my misdeed and wanted to share a heavenly laugh?
To a precocious child like myself, Christmas meant magic. My father went through a musical instrument phase and purchased both a grand piano and an organ. These two instruments alone filled our small house. My mother would set up a second, tabletop tree in our family room decorated solely in gold lights and glass baubles, while I would pretend to play carols on the organ delighting in the various keys and pedals.
After the tree was trimmed, she would light a three-wicked bayberry candle thought to bring good luck to the family home at Christmastime. I would lay on the floor in that room, snug in my footed pajamas, curled up next to our dog, transfixed by the woodland scent of the candle and the glory of the golden tree.
Out of all our senses, that of smell is our keenest reminder of days past. At the holidays, our home brimmed with bayberry and the smell of orange and bourbon emanating from my parents’ weekend Old-Fashioned cocktails. December Sundays smelled like melting butter, allspice, and pumpkin. Winter weeknights were filled with fragrant soups and beef barley stew.
In those days, the air was cold and thick with snow. After long days spent teaching high school English and shoveling snow, my father smelled of professorial Aramis aftershave, wool, and frost. Comfort and magic. My parents did indeed bring light into our home.
The scent of Christmas is ubiquitous in our commercial world. Candles smack of cranberry punch and Frasier fir promising champagne and mistletoe.
For some, the scent of Christmas does not elicit wonder and joy. The smell of church candles may remind us of loved ones who have passed days before Christmas. Woodsmoke on a barren night reeks of solitude rather than comfort. Those who suffer during the holidays may need a gentle reminder that light always follows darkness.
Perhaps all that lonely neighbor needs is a tumbler of take-away coffee and a slice of fragrant apple pie. Christmas is not really about grand, expensive gestures, but rather about seeing into the hearts of others and offering of ourselves.
To believers, the Magi introduced the tradition of gift giving when they arrived at a primitive stable to pay homage to the infant Jesus. Fitting gifts for the divine baby, the Magi offered gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These ancient presents were symbols of light, royalty, sacrifice, and death.
So many of our Christmas rituals evoke the promise of the Nativity. The treasured Irish custom of lighting the coinneal mor, the Christmas candle that rested in the main window of the cottage is still present in our homes today. Hearkening back to the travails of the Holy Family, the candle symbolized a warm welcome for weary travelers or lonely strangers in need of comfort; therefore, it was important that the candle remained lit throughout the night on Christmas Eve.
During the old times, candles were neither fragrant, nor evocative. Molded from tallow or animal fat, the beauty was not in the perfume of the candle, but rather in the value of the light.Regardless of our religious affiliations, it is impossible to ignore the need for illumination during winter’s darkness.
Located in the Boyne Valley of County Meath, Ireland, Newgrange is a Neolithic monument. This structure is older than Stonehenge. The narrow entry into the structure leads into a large open chamber. During the Winter Solstice, sunlight enters through the roof-box at dawn and illuminates the darkness of the chamber and its passageway. Ancient people knew that the time of light would soon arrive, and the natural cycle of the earth would begin again.
Perhaps this Christmastide we need to expect less from the artifice of the season, balancing our golden baubles with the crisp beauty of the winter stars. Just maybe, that candle in the window will be bayberry; its light will bring good health and joy to the loved ones who sit at our table and at our hearth. Perhaps the brightest light that shines this Christmas will be that which emanates from a selfless heart.
*Internet Source Consulted: Newgrange-World Heritage Site. Newgrange.com.
*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at [email protected]