Like the festive candle in the window, we can shine a light into darkness
One of my favourite Christmas jobs is making the Christmas puddings - yes, puddings. At least two of them. Because there are just too many delicious accompaniments to have with Christmas pudding to have just one…so I make at least two.
Once the first steaming is done, I can't resist repeatedly opening the lid just to inhale the quintessential aroma that evokes Christmas past, when decorations were multi-coloured paper chains which stretched from the central light to each of the four corners of the sitting room. And the Christmas tree was festooned in multi-coloured tinsel and garish baubles, and sported weird Cinderella fairy lights, the only set my parents possessed.
Today, of course, Christmas is fairy light central. We have them indoors and we have them outside in the garden, artfully draped over bushes and trees. Some of us even have all manner of multi-coloured light displays in our houses, so that Christmas today is a twinkling oasis of brightness at this, the darkest time of the year.
Today, most of us also have an assortment of candles in our homes which we burn year-round for effect and sometimes for scent. But back in the 1970s, there were only two kinds of candles in most houses; the tiny ones for birthday cakes (which were carefully recycled until they were too short to be of any use) and the long narrow ones which were needed during the frequent power cuts which were also a feature of life 40 years ago.
The only other time a candle was lit in the house was on Christmas Eve. My mother would retrieve the special Christmas candle and, having carefully hooked up the net curtains out of the way, she would light it and place it on the windowsill at the front of the house. The room was lit by the soft flickering glow and I can clearly remember kneeling on the sofa to look out of the window, as each of our neighbours placed their candle in their windows too. Our road was transformed into a magical row of flickering lights spilling their brightness into the mid-winter night in a simple but profoundly effective symbol of welcome.
This has been a deeply unsettling year. All that seemed solid and dependable has been swept away with the election of Donald Trump as the next US president and the Brexit decision in the UK. The sands are shifting and it is an unnerving time with an uncertain future ahead. Racism and fascism are on the rise, as those who have been dispossessed by economics seek to lay the blame for their deprivation in the wrong place.
In southern Europe and beyond, we continue to witness the unspeakable horror of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children taking the most appalling risks in a bid to escape to a safer life. And we have seen the carnage that extremists are willing to engage in, as they spread their terror to cities such as Nice, Brussels and Berlin.
Never has there been a more important time to hold steady to our values of tolerance and justice, even in a country that places bankers ahead of our own people who have no home to call their own. Our republic, imperfect as it is, has a moral duty to act as a beacon of hope and of common decency, holding firm against the tide of rising prejudice and hatred.
We were recently able to witness just what this means in reality, in the TV programme, 'The Crossing' on RTÉ, which documented the humanity of our Naval Service on duty in the Mediterranean. Maybe it is because we know what it means to be a refugee, a migrant in a foreign land, that we understand in our bones, something of our North African and Middle Eastern brothers' and sisters' suffering, as their countries boil over in bloodshed and deprivation and they have no choice but to take to sea in a 21st century version of a coffin ship.
The direct action of the Home Sweet Home movement has shown, yet again, that the people of this country are way ahead of the politicians. The occupation of Apollo House has been criticised as a foolhardy and simplistic gesture that won't solve the homeless crisis. Of course it won't, and the organisers know that. But it is a manifestation of the frustration of the people with the paralysis of Government on this issue.
I am so happy that I live in a country where we resort to some civil disobedience to make our anger felt, as opposed to electing politicians who stir up hate, racism and suspicion.
Imagine if this Christmas Eve, as darkness falls in Ireland, we all turned off our fairy lights, indoors and out, and instead lit just one candle and placed it in a front window. A light in the window, a beacon of hope, a candle of welcome. We could, as one nation, do what we do best - act from the heart and say in unison: "There is a welcome here - fáilte isteach."