This is the time of year when those who celebrate Christmas remember the nativity story. We set up little nativity scenes in our living rooms and many churches set up life sized ones – some with real animals for a petting zoo. Children put on Christmas pageants re-enacting the story of Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem and how they were turned away by innkeepers despite Mary being pregnant and had to stay in a stable. The story is recounted in Christmas carols from Away in a Manager to The Little Drummer Boy. And in Ireland, the usual spirit of welcome is amplified as we recall this story.
The Candles in the Window
Many families include a display of candles in their front windows among their Christmas decorations. We use electric candles now, mostly, for obvious safety reasons, but the meaning remains unchanged (even if some of us could use a refresher course). The candles are there to indicate a welcome, a céad mile fáilte (Irish for ‘a hundred thousand welcomes). Traditionally, it was literally meant as a sign that strangers passing through were invited to take a break from their journey and come in to warm up, but cars have made that less necessary. Now it is more seen as a sign of goodwill to all and a welcome to visitors, especially those who have travelled some distance to reach us.
Ireland has such a long history of emigration, and the candles also remind us of those who won’t be home for Christmas. It is a symbol of both our sadness at their absence and our optimism that one day we will welcome them home, if only for a visit. The plight of those unable to return to see family due to financial difficulties or a lack of official approval for their stay in the USA, Australia or wherever they have found work and stayed is also on our minds especially at Christmas.
Where the Tears of Joy Flow
Those who can return home for a Christmas visit are welcomed with enormous emotion at Dublin airport. Bands and Christmas carolers from schools and community groups are on hand to celebrate their arrival along with their joyful families. Nothing produces more happy tears than witnessing the scenes at the arrivals area in mid to late December as emigrants young and old return home for the holidays. Some have been away a matter of months, others for decades. Some come with new babies meeting their grandparents for the first time, and some come with older children who are also meeting their grandparents for the first time. Joyful tears and festive music abound.
It isn’t much of a surprise that the land of céad mile fáilte behaves this way at such an emotional season, but it is a beautiful thing to see and a lovely reminder of what the season is really all about – welcoming and including each other, making sure our loved ones know how we treasure them.