Folk Artist: Christmas Traditions
Some of the Christmases in the convent have been unlike any of those I had with my family at home. The first thing we learned in our “convent Christmas” was that the pre-Christmas weeks were called Advent. The chapel smelled fragrant with pine wreath and pure beeswax candles. Each Sunday another candle was lit until we prayed ourselves through four weeks to Christmas.
Unlike other young adults who busily frequented the shopping malls for gifts for family and friends, each of us were given the name of another Sister who was the recipient of our creativity. We made up notes to say “prayers for you,” found small pieces of candy or a pretty holy card for her. But these small favors were given in secret from “your Advent Angel.” Sometimes you found the surprise in your personal small mailbox, on your bedside table or on your study desk. It was at Christmas that you found out who had been your Advent Angel!
Another tradition was the choir practice of special hymns for the coming Christmas season. If you had a good voice, more practice of Special Choir involved you at other times during Advent. Some hymns were in Latin and others had the words of “old English” sung in the 16th century. The Sister Choir Director put groups of us in “voice “of soprano, alto and other tonalities according to your ability. Some of our young voices sang the haunting solos that floated from the high choir loft over the pews in the chapel. The very singing of hymns was considered prayer. On Christmas Eve in the candlelight of chapel, the hymns sung from many centuries became our precious gifts to the Christ Child and his young mother Mary. Today we would say the gift was priceless!
Before Midnight Mass, the Christmas Scene with its many statues was set up in the front of chapel near a side altar- only the small bundle in its swaddling clothes was missing. The baby “waited to be born.” Before Mass the priest, dressed in a gold cloth chasuble, carried the small infant statue in his hands as he walked up the main aisle and laid Jesus in the manger. The chapel lights were brightened, the organ and choir in the loft sang out and it felt that once again our world had been re-born! At the heart of the feast, and in every Sister’s heart, our name as Sisters of the Divine Savior had a special poignancy at Christmas.
About 1:30 A.M. we all went happily to sleep knowing that the morning Mass of the Shepherds would be just as festive again. The older professed Sisters had worked early and late to make a beautiful breakfast for over a hundred members!
After breakfast and dishes, several hours were free for a variety of activities: personal mail and Christmas cards were opened and enjoyed, a closer look at the Christmas crèche were made in chapel visits, and we went to different parts of the large motherhouse to see the decorated Christmas trees. A delicious noon dinner of special foods of different cultures and wonderful conversation were enjoyed by every Sister. We were able to “talk at table” instead of being silent at some meals, because it was a feast day. Later in the afternoon a Christmas performance by Sisters in vows gave the large community hymns and stories related to our international congregation.
Finally the special day had to end. Before the evening meal, prayers from the Office of Hours were said in chapel with antiphonal singing with the right and left sides of Sisters filling the chapel with beautiful chant. After supper we all felt tired in good ways from both anticipation of the feast day and its many activities. We all slept well- “Not a creature was stirring!”
By Sr. Karlyn Cauley, SDS