One Christmas I resolved to start a new and memorable tradition for our children. I picked the Advent Wreath as being a simple project that everybody could participate in.
“Can we come with you to buy the wreath?” the children all asked enthusiastically.
“A wreath has to be made,” I explained, “we’ll build it together.”
We cannibalized a large wire frame from a hanging basket that I never remembered to water, and I sent the children out to cut some green branches from our trees. The offerings brought back inside would have thatched our roof several times over, so the next task was to cut them down to a handful of fronds.
“Why are you using more of her branch than mine?” somebody wailed.
“Because your branch is full of prickles,” somebody else replied.
The branches were all stripped down equally and the resultant boughs wound tightly around the frame and fastened in place with those little ties that you get from the bulk foods section. This added a homely touch: little flags advertising ‘peanuts’, ‘barley’, ‘rice’ and such like. The whole thing was far too wobbly to hold a candle so I found some candleholders that could be clamped on the side and arranged the four candles, three purple and one pink.
The girls were so excited about the new wreath that they could hardly wait until supper. Everybody wanted to light the pink candle.
“No, the pink candle is the third to be lit,” I explained, “we light a purple one first.”
“Because that’s the way the Advent Wreath works.”
“Can I light the pink one when it is time?” asked one child.
“No, I want to. Please, Mum, can I?” asked another.
I explained to them that the candles on the wreath should only be lit once a week. Five faces drooped with disappointment. So we started a new tradition: we would light the candles every night during Advent.
For the first week, with only one candle, it was easy to take turns at lighting it and blowing it out, but as Advent progressed we accumulated more and more candles at dinner. It started when the middle two children each made a table decoration at school containing three candles.
“Can we have these at the table please Mum?” they pleaded, “that’s what our teacher said we should do with them.”
Never undermine the teacher’s authority, I thought, brimming with goodwill, so I agreed.
The next night eldest daughter, not wanting to be outdone, rooted around in her bedroom and produced a couple of candles, which she put by her own place. A few days later, eldest son found some candles to put in front of his plate, and even youngest child discovered a lump of misshapen wax at the bottom of a long forgotten goodie bag. Soon we had sixteen candles to light at each meal.
“Where are we going to put the food?” husband asked, lifting up the Advent Wreath, “do we really need this old thing?”
There were howls from the assembled family; how could he suggest such a thing? This was a tradition in the making!
The two eldest children, who were the only ones allowed to use matches, lit all the candles. Eldest daughter used one match per candle, littering the table with spent matches, like the debris from a fireworks display. Eldest son tried to light all the candles with the same match, burning his fingers, which he then plunged into his neighbour’s drink.
“Hey, you lit more than me, it’s not fair,” one of them would cry, blowing out the other’s lit candles to ensure equality, then quickly lighting more candles to gain the upper hand. The table resembled a small bonfire, and the sulphurous smell of matches mingled with the crackling of the dry leaves erupting in flames from the wreath, and the sizzling singeing of eldest daughter’s long hair.
“Why is there only one pink candle?” they asked, when the day finally came to light their favourite one.
“Because it is supposed to represent relief in the middle of Advent,” I explained.
Relief? For whom? Not me surely. By now I was reduced to cooking in the dark, because the children had turned out the lights to maximize the effect of their pre-Christmas conflagration.
After each candle-lit meal was finished the ritual of the blowing out began. It was like a daily birthday party attended by five big bad wolves, who huffed and puffed, sending smoke signals heavenwards, and spraying molten wax over the micro-sized plates and the macro-sized portions of left-over food. Eldest son repeated the burning trick: dipping his fingers into someone’s drink, he extinguished the glowing wicks before middle child could blow them into life again. Eldest daughter scooped the warm wax out of the candles and fashioned it into shapes. Youngest child rearranged the candles closer to her place and husband scavenged for dinner among the debris.
When Christmas Day came it was a day for celebration. The Wreath, with all its symbolism, was put away for another year. The table was now free of clutter, and we could eat drink and be merry, happy in the knowledge that we had created our own, unique, family tradition.