Christmas Eve: the one day of the year there’s a candle lit in my house. Now it’s not that I’ve an aversion to candles, but growing up in a house where my Dad spoke about the marks left by them on walls he plastered would appear to have left its mark!
December 24th, as long as everything’s thawed, peeled, fused and wrapped that is, ought to be a day of relative calm.
The hard yards have been put in, the good placemats are ready to be rolled out, the dusty cranny with a lingering remnant of Halloween about it has finally been addressed, and you’ve even sorted out the Sunday clothing for Christmas Mass.
So by the time you’ve got the excited smallies in your house into their pyjamas and even allowing for the inevitable disagreement about watching ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ the following night, all ought to be calm. Even the mice shouldn’t be stirring. It ought to be quiet time by then.
We have so much noise in our lives now. Blockbuster movies nowadays, however much I enjoy them, generally offer up to 80 or 90 per cent of city levelling crash bang wallopery: and it’s no coincidence that one of my favourite scenes in the new ‘Star Wars’ movie was utterly silent.
But back to the noise now. So much noise. We click to You Tube for videos on our phones and access back catalogues of our favourite bands with the swipe of a digit on the same device. Facebook. Twitter. Snapchat. The boss emailing you on your day off. So much noise. So much connectivity. Too much of both. Not enough headspace.
In recent years, when I’ve lit my candle, I try to disengage and sit quietly. No music. No television. No smartphone. I try to concentrate on my breathing, the one thing we need to do to stay on life’s merry-go-round. I don’t stop and dwell nearly often enough on my breathing.
In February 2015, the Irish Motor Neurone Disease (MND) Association initiated a campaign in which they invited the public to give up their voices for just 30 minutes. This was to highlight the fact that between 80 and 95 per cent of people living with MND will experience some loss of speech before they die.
So on a Tuesday morning, just under three years ago, I consciously sat in sustained silence for the first time in my life. Some will claim eyewitnesses were required to verify this moment of history but you’re just going to have to take my word for it! I kept my hands on my thighs and just sat there, as still as I could manage. And it was an odd sensation.
It left me thinking about those who have to live – and die – due to MND and it also brought to mind that other awful disease which imprisons a vibrant mind inside a broken body: Parkinson’s.
A good man I knew for many years succumbed to Parkinson’s a few short weeks ago. A creative man by nature, and a man whose physicality made him a mighty 56lb weight thrower, a fine hurler and a key member of many a tug o’war team was denied many more years doting over grandchildren and many more nights writing poetry because of Parkinson’s. The silence catalysed by illness, which pre-empts the ultimate and non-negotiable silence, comes far too soon in far too many instances. It did for him.
So this year, my Christmas Eve candle will be lit with both that kind man and my late Father at the forefront of those emotional thoughts that prove so unavoidable at this time of year. And I’ll sit on my sitting room chair, in silence, and spare them both a loving thought while my candle flickers against the blackness of the world outside. It’s the least both men deserve. And as long as I retain my memory, I light that candle for both of them.
A good family friend sent me some thoughts about Christmas last week, and in the midst of his musings he spared a few for the late Patrick Kavanagh, whom he justly described as “a curmudgeonly old crabby so-and-so,” a man whose words “glittered with beauty and wonderment”.
Kavanagh, he said, “rose on his tippy-toes to see God dancing in the ordinary things of everyday”, a man whose poetry still allows us to drift back to less hectic times.
“His Christmas childhood poem is a delight. ‘The light of the stable-lamp (as his mother was milking) was a star. The frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle. The light between the ricks of hay and straw was a hole in heaven’s gable end. One side of the potato pit was white with frost. How wonderful was that, how wonderful.’ May our own little eyes be opened this season to see the wonders of everyday and everywhere and every person.”
The recent snow offered me up the roads of my childhood almost exclusively during a brief, peaceful window. Just two cars passed by in the 20-plus minutes I was out and about with our two labradors, and while out on our walk we paused to pay attention to a few horses which crunched across their paddock towards us. And I thought of all the times my Dad made down this same road with both these dogs, and the many more he owned for the better part of 50 years.
That great man of nature, who revelled in both the noise of happy chat and the reverence of the dawn chorus, will be firmly in my mind this Sunday night when that candle flickers once more in my sitting room window. Embrace the silence and to all, a good night.