* On December 1 every year, there would be another trimming added to the rosary.
We waited, my three sisters and I, to see if mother would forget, but no: as we knelt on the cement kitchen floor, and when all the other trimmings were said, she would begin: "Hail and blessed be the hour and the moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary at midnight in the stable in Bethlehem in piercing cold. At that same hour, vouchsafe, O my God, to hear my prayers and grant my petitions. Amen."
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
GIVING AND TAKING
* Regarding top-ups, the decent, generous Irish people deserve better from all these institutions. It seems management, in most cases, is well aware of where funds end up, yet persists in this practice. The wise Cicero, 2,100 years ago, said: "Any man can make mistakes but only an idiot persists in his error." So, who are the fools here, us givers or the takers?
Newtown Hill, Tramore, Waterford
HEARTS AND MINDS
* It is sometimes said, within Ireland, that we do not have the players to really compete with the best in the world. Last Sunday week proved that Irish rugby players have the natural ability to best any rugby nation, including the formidable New Zealanders, and under a coach of Joe Schmidt's calibre (and drive) their development in terms of skill and self-confidence will be exciting.
However, the key reason why we failed to take the victory that we should have executed against the All Blacks is a big lesson that we can learn from New Zealand rugby: mental toughness. It was a telling statistic, from an Irish point of view, that we failed to build on our impressive first-half scores in the all-important second half of the match.
A clearly sympathetic (insofar as an All Black coach can be) Steve Hansen sought to inform the Irish of our most consequential weakness: "They (the Irish) don't believe that they are as tough as they are."
It is clear that the New Zealanders have a higher opinion of the threat that we can pose on the rugby pitch than we Irish do, and they prepare accordingly. Mr Hansen also sought to inform us that Ireland's players were guilty of not backing themselves at crucial times during the match.
All Black rugby puts a special emphasis on developing the skills associated with mental strength, and these acquired skills have seen the All Blacks escape from some very sticky situations, as well as helping them to maintain their consistency.
It would be profitable for Irish rugby to learn from how the All Blacks develop and employ the acquired skills of mental strength.
Finally, it is important to point out that it will only be by playing the All Blacks, regularly, will we eventually beat them. We must find the will to arrange Tests against the All Blacks on a more frequent, predictable basis.
John B Reid
Monkstown, Co Dublin
NORTH POLE CALLING
* Warm greetings from the North Pole! Santa would like to remind all the boys and girls to post their Christmas letters to him as soon as possible.
All the elves are busy in the workshop making and packing toys and gifts. Mrs Claus is checking lists of names on her computer and planning the route for Santa's journey on Christmas Eve!
Santa loves reading the letters from children in Ireland, particularly when they have taken the time to write the letter themselves. All they need do is:
* Put their letter in an envelope.
* Write their own name and address (in very clear writing) on the top left-hand corner of the front of the envelope.
* Stick a 60c stamp on the top right-hand corner.
* Post it in a green post box to: Santa Claus, The North Pole.
Once again this year, many helpers in An Post are helping Santa to reply to as many letters as possible before Christmas. I hope you have a very magical Christmas!
C/o Santa Claus, The North Pole
* I thought it astonishing that, in this day and age, one European country can still threaten another, insidiously or otherwise, as did happen when Ukraine abandoned signing the EU integration pact. There is little doubt that Russia's control over Ukraine's gas supply had a major influence on President Yanukovich's decision.
But my memory was short. I thought back to autumn 2010; had we not also been threatened, that time by a European institution, when the ECB insisted upon us paying unsecured bondholders?
Dunleer, Co Louth
STILL 'LITTLE' AT 81
* Little Richard is 81 tomorrow. Good golly, will he ever grow up?