Cor ad Cor: This Week at Newman

Dr. Ryan N.S. Topping
/ Categories: Cor ad Cor

A Canadian Christmas, Part 1

Christmas around the Fire, by Dr. Ryan Topping
Dr. Topping’s newest book is a collection of Christmas stories

Ah, the final weeks of term! When the long writing vigils begin, when sleep vanishes, and when examinations on Scripture, logic, literature, and choir loom large. These past weeks at Newman, students and faculty have begun to turn their minds toward the end. Of the term, yes, but also toward the end of time and how to prepare. During daily Mass in our chapel, we have heard the promises that he – the long-awaited one – is coming soon.

Departing from our normal custom in these pages of opening up a window into the adventures in our classrooms, I’d like to reflect briefly on the sort of culture that the classroom is meant to cultivate. It’s a culture where, among other goods, our worship helps shape our leisure.

My wife and I have ten children. In our household, vespers marks the beginning of our “quiet time.” It is now that another round of tea is poured, evening crafts and games reappear, a drawing is returned to, and especially during these months soon will begin with new vigour one of our favourite Advent and Christmas activities—reading aloud.

In the weeks leading up to December 25, the question yearly arises: What to read this year? After the exams are graded and passed (one hopes), after the duties of work, shopping, and cleaning are through, when motion makes room for rest, what stories refresh the soul? During these long evenings, in our house, we have no time for television or the internet but instead, look forward to hearing the voice of someone in the home read a good tale well told. One Christmas, I decided to put together a list of stories that would suit this season’s leisure and deep joy. A year or two ago, this list finally grew into a collection I titled Christmas Around the Fire: Stories, Essays, & Poems for the Season of Christ’s Birth. (Tan Books, 2019). You can find a copy at NTC’s bookstore (or on Amazon, if you’re really desperate). In it, you’ll see tales suited to this season from Chesterton, Tolstoy, Dickens, and even one about a Canadian Christmas…

A Canadian Christmas

The author recounts how one family keeps the traditions of Advent and Christmas alive and burning brightly in the cold of a Canadian winter.

I have always taken an interest in Christmas traditions. One cold, dark December evening, not long ago, the topic came up with an old bachelor friend. We were sipping something or other around the fire, musing over the sorry old state of the world. It was the longest night of the year. We both agreed that too many Christmases are cut short: gifts unwrapped by Christmas Eve, trees tossed by St. Stephen’s, lights down by Our Lady’s Feast. The whole bustle of December parties and shopping leaves many of us, we agreed, anxious and exhausted even before the grand festivities begin, if they do begin at all. We lingered over such thoughts deep into the night. In this rather disturbed state of mind, my friend went on to tell me this story to cheer me up. He recalled a family he had stayed with some Christmases ago. These were cousins of his, also from Canada. He couldn’t remember then the town in which they lived, nor do I recollect now their names—though I remember they can see northern lights there.

In any case, he told me that night of the long visit about ten years ago he had with these relatives and of how they celebrated Christmas in a way he thought jolly good. His story encouraged my melancholy soul. Since that time, we’ve tried to keep up, in my own family, one or two of the traditions practiced in this one. I may not get all the details right. But, in case something of what I recall may encourage your family, I pass along here the substance of what my friend told me that evening:

“The whole affair really gets going,” my friend paused to clear his throat, “long before December 25. In this home, the great feast of Christmas is paired, like other feasts of the Church, with a fast. This means that the days of December—that is to say, Advent—are actually a ‘little Lent.’ The fasting is not so harsh as during the real Lent. But you can feel the purple in the air if you know what I mean. Parties are few. Everything about those weeks builds to the big night. In this spirit, preparations begin even before December, at least for the mother.”

“Why only for mother?” I interrupted.

“Because she is the one who shops.”

“I don’t understand . . .” At this, my friend began to chuckle. I hardly ever go into stores, as he knew. “I see,” I nodded after a few more words of explanation. “The mother shops for gifts before December, so she need not during Advent.” He smiled; I didn’t interrupt him again. And so he continued . . .

Once Advent begins, three activities change the character of this household. First, there is the writing of the annual Christmas circular. Next, the nightly Jesse Tree. Finally, a change in diet. The December Feasts give reason to bring out the sweets again—St. Lucy’s, Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Nicholas. The fast in this house is just enough, so I found, to keep the appetites a little unhappy.

The Jesse Tree deserves an explanation. When the children were young and few, the mother made her own. They told me that it is an ancient devotion, one you can see in some medieval churches. It is a pictorial “family album” of the saviour. Jesus is God’s son, but he is also Jesse’s. After Vespers, the household gathered around a sheet of cloth with an image of a tree sewn upon it. Each evening, a new felt image was pulled out of a calendar with twenty-four slots. The images were then placed upon the felt “tree” hanging on a wall in the dining room. The first day began with creation, next Adam and Eve, after that, the fall, the flood, and so on. Eventually, you arrived at Abraham, then Jesse, then King David, and Christ himself. By the end of Advent, the entire family, from the three-year-old to the thirteen-year-old, had gained a good picture of salvation history. I only saw the last week or so of the ritual, but even I was surprised at how many centuries of turmoil and tears it took to bring Jesus into the manger!

(Watch for Part 2 next week!)

Dr. Topping's book , Christmas Around the Fire, can be purchased at NTC's bookstore or online. 

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