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Our house, like the majority of Irish homes, has long experienced the tug of family abroad. Christmas’ past when sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandchildren were away from our firesides at Christmas come to mind. Adelaide, Annan, Basel, Birmingham, Brighton, Chicago, Glasgow, Hartlepool, London, Madrid, Manchester, Melbourne, Morocco, Ottawa, Palma, Perth, Preston, Riyadh, Sydney, Ternitz, Toronto, Vancouver and this year we have the addition of Bangkok, a list that spans all continents and conjures up images of a combination of similarities and differences. Images of sights, smells, customs, colour, excitement and celebration colliding and confused by time zones.
The long red sentinel candle standing well secured in a milk bottle decorated by red crepe paper and holly in the parlour window of 151 has a significance that is as important today as it was then to a wide eyed young girl in the 1950’s. The white net curtain whipped away and pinned to the window frame while we stood transfixed as Dad struck the match and with a steady hand nurtured the flame till it united with the wick and took off, tentatively at first but then with purpose. We watched a bright yellow spot of light flickering, with a message for all those passing by. The candle conveyed a message that exuded a welcome that should anyone knock we would not turn them away; we would find shelter and food for them within.
I wondered if I blew a soft breath upwards from my palm towards the light would it be carried away soaring up, up over the rooftops joined by the candlelight from neighbours’ windows, together forming a galaxy of light and love. I imagined as it sailed out over the Irish Sea it had now become a cloud of floating prayers and wishes wending its way across the miles. Atlases always held a fascination for me, trying to merge the pages of maps into a coherent manuscript that gave an overall picture of the world at large was difficult. Trying to scale my imagination into a realistic view of size and space always kept me busy but never more so than at Christmas when the echo of family members abroad was a constant shadowy presence.
In the stillness of a now quiet house their voices and silhouettes are with me as I write the Christmas grocery list “Don’t forget the parsnips”, I hear Aoife call softly from Asia, Christmas dinner wouldn’t be Christmas dinner without roast parsnips was her belief. I wonder will there be chestnut stuffing and strudel for Christmas dinner in Austria? I expect I’ll be able to answer that question before 2013 is out. The magic of Christmas excites as I comprehend the additional layer of first-hand knowledge of Christmas in Austria and Bangkok that will now be a part of our global family folklore.
A red sentinel Christmas candle is ready to be placed on the window sill of No 4. On Christmas Eve when Fintan strikes the match and nurtures the flame like our fathers did, our prayer and expectations will include the young generation of family and friends at home and abroad. Dylan in Bangkok, Patrick in Boise, Otto in Brighton, Tadgh in Melbourne, Sacha, Kate and Lauren in Perth, Olivia in Toronto, Kiera in Vancouver and the miracle of Liam and Maeve in Dundrum. We too wish the light from our Christmas candle will convey the message that should you knock we will not turn you away but find shelter and food for you.