We loved that little prayer, which became known as the "Hail and Blessed" novena. If any one of us had occasion to stay away from home overnight in the 24 days preceding Christmas, we were immediately asked on our return if we had remember to say our "Hail and Blesseds".
We lived on a farm in the west of Ireland and had a house exactly like that of the local schoolmaster, who lived just down the road, with one exception, though. His house had crimson holland blinds on his front five windows, while ours had the ordinary (to us) cream-coloured ones. Every Christmas Eve, my chore as the youngest of the family was to put a lighted candle in every window to greet the Holy Family or any other traveller.
Mother would come to inspect the lighted candles and pull down the blinds, after which my sisters and I donned warm coats and scarves to go to the bottom of the driveway to admire the windows, then proceed down the road to see the Master's house with its lights shining through the crimson blinds.
We were always a little bit envious on seeing those glowing lights, and on our return voiced our opinion that the Holy Family would surely choose the Master's house in which to rest.
We did not always have midnight Mass, but we sat up until midnight to see if our 'petitions' had been granted, in the form of the small but useful gifts our parents had given us. We were glad to get a good book, a pair of hornpipe shoes, a jigsaw puzzle, a mouth organ.
We were united, we were happy, we drank cocoa and ate treacle and raisin bread and went to bed in the unspoken assurance that ours was a warm and contented world. Every year we asked mother (dear dad was not interested in these girlish frivolities) what her petitions had been, and the answer was always the same: health, a contented home, the gift of laughter, and the grace to accept with fortitude any troubles that came her way.
My mother died quietly in her sleep at the age of 102 years and seven months.
As for the little Hail and Blessed novena, sometimes over the years I remembered to say it; sometimes I have started it and forgotten to finish it; most times I have just forgotten.
Perhaps this year in this vast and beautiful land, so far removed from the rain and the wind and the gentle green fields of the land of my birth, I'll put a candle in the window and remember.
(This piece was written by Kay van der Sandt (nee Doherty) who grew up in Co Roscommon, but lived in South Africa until she died a few years ago.)
South Mall Cork
Irish Independent Letters 4 Dec 2013