Jim Furlong: Is The Manger Still Near?

There was a time when we Christians were in the iron grip of “Holy Mother Church.” That is how Catholics were wont to label  the “head office” of their brand of Christianity anyway. 

You don’t hear it much anymore because times have changed but really, the Church had a hold on Christmas AND a hold on us.

Countdown to Christmas 

It started with Advent and the weeks leading up to the ultimate religious holy day in the calendar; Christmas Day. Advent itself was kind of a  month-long “countdown to Christmas” with things like Advent wreaths” in churches and schools and in our case,  the home.

Special prayers and the Advent wreath were part of the preparations. 

The wreath was made of boughs from a fir tree and had four candles on it which were lit in turn as the weeks leading to Christmas ticked down. As the eldest son in our family I was the one to light the first candle on the wreath. You hardly ever hear of Advent wreaths these days. I suspect modern insurance actuaries would not insure houses with wreaths with real candles.  

Scratch any  Christian’s memory and, no matter how far removed from regular church attendance, you will find dust from  ceremonies and rituals deeply carved and still blowing around. 

For my immediate and extended family, Midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s stands out, although it was  60 years ago. In those days fasting in order to receive Holy Communion at Mass had to be from midnight the day before. That made Midnight Mass special because on Christmas Eve there was no real fast and you could eat right up to the time you went to church. 

Joy to the World

This was organized religion in the 1950s under full sail in Newfoundland. Mass was in Latin, that ancient tongue that gave an air of deep mystery to the whole thing. There were ringing bells and altar boys and gleaming vestments and robed priests that didn’t face the parishioners but rather huddled over the marble altar while whispering arcane incantations that, despite being  in Latin, we knew by heart. 

All of this was accompanied by a large choir and by the great organ of St. Patrick’s Church. The hymns; we all knew. Adeste Fideles, Joy to the World, O Little Town of Bethlehem and all the rest. 

When we got home from church it would be nearly one o’clock in the morning and part of our Christmas ritual was steak. We called it steak but, with the wisdom of the years behind me, I understand  now it was what we call “frying meat” which is basically stewing beef that was cooked for many hours to soften it up. There was bread and gravy with it. 

Today the stewing beef is gone, and you don’t have to go early anymore to get a seat at Midnight Mass. Some churches have the Mass earlier so as not to hurt “the gate.” Things have changed. They always do but Christmas is still “ holy” but is illuminated today by a different light.

NTV’s Jim Furlong can be reached by emailing: [email protected]

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