a wa woman staff skiing in the bush

Combermere Diary

by Paulette Curran

I am writing this column on December 28th, a crisp, bright day and our first day back at work after our three Christmas days off. But unlike the decorations in the stores, our festivities are not over the day after Christmas.

At Madonna House, it is Advent until the Christmas Vigil Mass, and we don’t sing Christmas carols or decorate until very close to that day. Then, in various ways and to varying degrees, we celebrate all twelve days of Christmas—from Christmas Day through Epiphany.

In one way, in our Madonna House Catholic culture within the Canadian culture, we may well be like that of the Middle Ages. Apparently, at one point, in one place, they were celebrating so many holy days that a law was made to limit their number!

It is impossible to describe the richness of deeply living the liturgical seasons, but I’ll make an attempt.

During Advent, we follow the customs of many lands in celebrating the feasts within the season.

On St. Nicholas Day, we ate gingerbread cookies cut in the shape of bishops and brightly decorated. We learned or relearned the story of the saint and received just one gift: the name of someone to pray for for the year. And, oh yes, I almost forgot, there was one other gift. “St. Nicholas” left candy in our shoes.

The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe may well be the most delightful of our feasts; for sure, it is the most childlike. Among other things, we sang mananitas (morning songs) to Our Lady, had a Spanish Mass and Mexican supper, and saw presented once again the beautiful story of Our Lady’s apparition.

Our evening celebration of this feast is different every year, and this year, we had a music night, which was organized and MC’ed by Veronica Ferri.

This year, as I’ve said before, we have an unusually high number of men working guests, and it was great hearing their rich, deep voices in their rendition of a Negro spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

Veronica also led us in audience-participation in a rap-style song she’d written telling the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On cue, we played percussion instruments (such as tambourines) and shook various kinds of shakers.

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception we celebrated like a Sunday—with an especially festive Mass and supper. After Vespers, our evening prayer, one woman and four men guests consecrated themselves to Our Lady.

For the anniversary of Catherine’s death, December 14th, as we have been doing for years now, we had a day of recollection. This is always a wonderful break in the midst of the Advent busyness, to rest with the Lord and center on what the season and life are all about. That evening, in memory of Catherine, we had a Russian supper.

And I’m only telling you about how we celebrate the biggest of our Advent feasts and customs.

But more importantly, there is Advent itself: the Advent wreath; the Mass readings, especially the ones from Isaiah; the ancient O Antiphons; and the Advent-time Gospels and homilies at Mass. All express and foster the longing for Christ in our hearts.

And the busyness of the Christmas preparations? Well, that is a big part of Advent at Madonna House.

There were work bees: to make tortillas (for Our Lady of Guadalupe Day), to make and decorate gingerbread bishops, and every evening, unless something else was scheduled, the kitchen was filled with people baking Christmas cookies.

The kitchen made tortieres (French Canadian Christmas meat pies), shortbread, Christmas pudding, monarch buns, and everything else that could be made ahead of time.

The handicraft department led the decorating (of which there was lots) and the sacristans, as always, ironed and polished and did much other hidden work. And many of us cleaned, decorated, practiced Christmas songs, and made wreaths from the evergreens that grow everywhere in this part of Canada.

And Christmas itself? A Madonna House Christmas—well really, the twelve days of Christmas—is impossible to describe. It is fittingly a time of great rejoicing, for, as we say and sing over and over: “Christ is Born!”

How do we celebrate this? The three Christmas Masses, the carolling (some of it spontaneous—during meals, dishes, etc.), the decorations, the festive suppers, and the performances after supper (songs, poems, readings, this year organized and MC’ed by Gloria Lawton). And the “free” days filled with all sorts of things: sleeping, reading, skiing, ice skating, hockey, hiking, game-playing, story-telling etc., etc., etc. And much visiting with one another.

Every year is slightly different, and this year, on the second day of Christmas, the temperature hovered around freezing, resulting in treacherous icy conditions.

The ice worsened and ice skating (the ice was too rough), hiking, and visiting among our houses (the main house, the farm, St. Mary’s, and St. Joseph’s House) became impossible. The annual farm open house was postponed, and many people curled up with books in various corners.

And now we are back at work: doing the things that got let go during the height of the feast. But the singing, the beautiful decorations, the Christmas cookies, and the short after-supper entertainment continue. Plus, we still have New Year’s, Epiphany, and the Baptism of the Lord to look forward to.

What else has been happening? Well the main other event was that our three new directors general made their first visitation—to our house in the Yukon.

P.S. Between the time I wrote this column and this paper’s going to press, we had an ice storm. For sure, it had its very negative side: some loss of electric power and the dangers of slipperiness and falling branches. But, oh, the beauty of it!

No matter where you looked, it felt as if you had entered into an enchanted land. Trees, roofs, everywhere—shining, white, and sparkling in the sunshine. And all of it beneath a blue, blue sky.

May God bless each of you, give you beauty, and fill you with his peace.