by John-Henry Westen
OTTAWA VALLEY, Ontario, December 23, 2008 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The snow came early this year, a huge dump by late October. Our family trip to visit my in-laws in Myrtle Beach South Carolina at that time ended with driving back in a massive snow storm, and being forced to take refuge in a New York State hotel overnight to wait out the worst of it. That hotel stay (like many of ours as the family sometimes accompanies me on speaking engagements) consisted of using the hotel room as one big tent for the nine of us.
Some might think it a nightmare with three to a bed and blow-up mattresses, but in truth the children love it. Their joy is infectious – they’re excited, and when the lights go out it is quite some time before the giggles subside into peaceful silence. I must say though we make quite a spectacle as we pile into the cafeteria for the complimentary breakfast.
The snow at home here in the Ottawa Valley commenced a week later, but when it did it made up for any delay with a running start of nearly two feet of packing snow. Home school lessons were undertaken with lightening speed in the early morning hours with the motivation peaked by the promise of snowman, tunnel and fort building. As the children grow older the snowmen increase in height and creativity. This year’s first offerings were a mother and baby snowmen. The 7.5’ father snowman required some assistance from yours truly – to put the head on. As you can see from the photos, our winter landscape is familiar to most today as it very closely matches the Disney depictions of Narnia.
We are blessed to have our children part of the famous Sparrows Choir of music Maestro Uve Lieflander, thanks to our being situated in close proximity to Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy, a local Catholic college at which he is a part-time professor of music. Our eldest three children thus participated in a concert of Handel’s Messiah. The four remaining little ones and Mom and Dad were in the packed Church where the concert took place. Since it was sacred music, the priest decided that the Blessed Sacrament would remain in the Church and the orchestra and choir would perform from the choir loft, the audience left facing Our Lord in the tabernacle.
I was at one time a choir boy with St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto. The Hallelujah Chorus of the Messiah is a very familiar piece to me, but never have I experienced such a rendition. The professional orchestra was outstanding and the voices of the Academy Choir with the addition of the little Sparrows was impressive as well, but what piqued the performance was the situation. Many in the church stood and faced the choir for the famous Chorus, others, my wife and I included stood, facing the tabernacle. Hearing: “And He shall reign forever and ever, King of kings! and Lord of lords! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” facing the Lord of Lords Himself brought tears to the eyes and it felt ‘Heavenly’ in the truest sense of the word.
For us, the preparation for Christmas begins with the first Sunday of Advent (November 30 this year) at which time the first of four Advent candles is lit at the dinner table before the meal with a little prayer asking God to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Savior. Each week another candle is lit until the fourth Sunday only a few days before the long-expected One. Christmas plays, a Christmas party, church cleanings, baking and searching out and cutting down a Christmas tree all play a part in the preparations.
At the church a stable is prepared with the Christ Child not yet in the manger. Children are encouraged to add bits of hay to make a soft bed for Our Lord when He comes, the price of the hay being little deeds of love, forgiveness, helpfulness, and such.
At home too we build ourselves a little crèche set. My wife and eldest daughter usually hunt for moss to cover the stable and grounds of the display. This year however the snow came so early and in such quantities as to make the gathering of moss impossible. Providentially however, my wife happened, for the first time ever, to store last year’s moss instead of disposing of it. Therefore we have a beautiful moss-covered crèche this year as well.
We’ve noticed over the years that the children like to play with the figures of the crèche set. While I remember playing with Star Wars figures, our little ones play with Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus, the Shepherds, Kings and Angels. Our set though is off limits for play since it is a wood-carved set which has been handed down in my family for generations. Thus, some of our children have acquired plastic crèche figures of their own courtesy of Madonna House – a lay religious community in the neighborhood. The youngest though could not find such figurines so they improvised. A Dora doll became Mary, with a Diego Baby Jesus, and we learned that the Nutcracker St. Joseph “phoned” the doctor because Mary was having her baby.
We always celebrate Christmas beginning on Christmas Eve, taking even the little ones to midnight Mass. It only works with an inordinate amount of treats and chocolates for the littlest to stave off the grumpiness of exhaustion. The carols, candles, incense, bells and awe of that Mass, the freezing night air and the oddity of being awake with your friends and family in the middle of the night all add to the sense of wonder, and excitement, of realizing that something special is taking place – the Savior of the World has come to inhabit the stables of our hearts anew.
Part of our Advent this year was the aftermath of the death of my father Henry Westen on November 4. He was a man of great faith. In my 38 years of knowing him I can scarcely recall one interaction with him when he failed to encourage me in faith in Christ.
My father has always been a big part of our family Christmas celebrations. His main role was the reading of the Christmas story from St. Luke’s Gospel beginning from the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary followed by a short prayer and paternal blessing which always occurred just prior to the opening of presents late on Christmas Eve.
We’ll likely play a video of Dad reading the passage this year, and for many years to come. I know there will be sadness, as even now there is a lump in my throat as I write these words. But I can say in all truth at the same time that I know Dad is closer to me now than he was before. Separated by 45 minutes and his hearing difficulties and little time to be alone, our communications were never what I’d liked them to have been. But now he can be with me anytime, he can hear me better than ever before, even when I whisper.
If man can come up with cell phones and instant messaging in order to facilitate communication across the planet, surely our Creator can facilitate communication across the chasm between this world and the next. As the famous hymn ‘The Church’s One Foundation’ recalls, there is “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won”.
Dad was a great prayer warrior for me during his life. When I fell away from the practice of faith in my late teens I’d come home from clubbing sometimes at 3am and still see him kneeling by his bedside (sometimes slumped over sleeping) praying for me. In my pro-life work I always called on him to sustain me in prayer, and knew he did.
He still prays for me now I know. It’s just he’s now closer to the Source of help.
Merry Christmas to all of you and my prayers and best wishes for a happy and holy New Year!