picture of my advent wreath
Essays on Faith, Family and Culture

An Advent Wreath Just Like Me

“Not that old thing.” My husband frowned at the tarnished brass ring. Foil fluttered from one of the four candle holders, a remnant of Advents past and my attempt to keep a candle in place. They never fit well in the cups.

“Can’t you buy a new one?”

“This was my mom’s.”

“I know, but…”

“But it’s a cheap Advent wreath she bought at Woolworths in 1962 for their first Christmas in their new home,” I rummaged in the box for the purple and rose candles.

How could I explain to my husband what the old, warped brass Advent wreath meant to me? How, coming home from school on the Monday after Thanksgiving, the wreath would be on the silver tray, candles in place, plastic greenery adorning the tray, the box of matches waiting for me to light the first candle. How we would save the church bulletin to read the prayer over the wreath, and how the wavering flames marked the days until Christmas.

picture of my advent wreath
My Advent wreath. Picture taken last year before the mouse destroyed the rose candle.

My hand closed over what felt like waxy shards. I pulled what was left of the rose candle, the Gaudete Sunday candle, from the box, snorting with laughter and indignation at the same time.

“What happened?”

“The mouse!” I doubled over with laughter. The closet where we keep the Advent wreath and candles also houses a few extra pots and pans and the bags of dog and cat food we keep for our pup and seven felines. Among those pots and pans lived a very energetic, fat mouse who feasted on dropped cat kibble. Now, with seven cats living with us, you’d think that at least one would be eager to catch the mouse. But no. The mouse lived in the closet for weeks until Rocky, our tough former feral, dispatched it and left it on the hallway rug for me as a gift.

Here, however, was evidence of the mouse’s ingenuity and varied diet. He’d nibbled away the sides of the rose candle, leaving wax among the mouse droppings in the box.

With a sigh, I set aside the candle. Gaudete, little mouse, I thought and found the last candle.

Patched, wobbling, the tape peeling off the center where I’d used cellophane tape to hold it together, it finally toppled, spinning and smashing into the floor.

“Well,” I said with a sigh, scooping up the remnants of the candles, “I guess we won’t need the aluminum foil to hold the candles in place. I don’t have a new set and these won’t do.”

As I gathered the remains of the Advent candles and the warped, wobbly wreath, I thought with amusement of the mouse, the smashed candle, the candle lighted in the storm.

Isn’t this just like my spiritual life? Wobbly around the edges, like my warped brass wreath. But also like my wreath, it is inherited from my mother, a gift passed down through the ages and cherished despite its seeming incongruity with the modern age.

And like my tarnished brass Advent wreath, I cling to it stubbornly, refusing to trade it in for the new, the shiny, the balanced. It is an irrational act, clinging to the old Advent wreath as well as clinging to a faith that often feels at complete odds with the modern world. To be Catholic and a Salesian in the 21st century is to be completely at odds with what society values.

The rose candle, nibbled around the edges until it too is almost ready to crumble, is like my faith when I am beset by problems. This fall, we experienced many family problems: sickness, work trouble, loss of income. During that time I found it hard to pray. It felt as if my spirit had been gnawed around the edges, frayed. Perhaps the demon sent to plague my family was like the mouse, nibbling at us by throwing too many life problems our way at once. I found myself praying the St. Michael prayer and asking my guardian angel for help and the feeling lifted. I picture St. Michael grabbing the mouse-demon by the scruff of the neck as Rocky must have grabbed the fat gray mouse, shaking it, snapping it, tossing it off and out.

Gaudete, indeed.

My faith is like the first purple candle, lit to light the way in the storm; the fourth candle, shattered in two bits and held together with tape. Sometimes I think I need spiritual duct tape and I turn to my rosary, worn from my grandmother’s fingers, another gift inherited from the faithful women in my family who turned to that one, best faithful woman, Mary, during their times of trouble.

I’ve bookmarked Advent candles on my Amazon wishlist so I won’t forget them next year, and I may take my husband up on his offer of buying me a new wreath. But I’ll keep the brass wreath. My mother’s hands touched the metal. Her fingerprints are still somewhere on it. My breath, the breath of a child, may have tarnished a bit here and there as I blew out the candles on the last Sunday of Advent with eager anticipation of Christmas to come.

Over the wavering flames reflected in the tarnished brass, I see my grandmother’s eyes, my mother’s eyes, my father, my siblings. I see Christmases past, stretching back beyond the creation of this cheap wreath in some Woolworth’s factory to a stable long ago.

Just like my faith, I need refreshing, renewal, rebirth. I need my savior born at the end of a long spiritual advent where my faith has been smashed, nibbled around the edges, and burned at both ends.

I stretch out my hand, and the sole straight, complete candle is there, ready to light the way back.

My latest novel, I See You, is available on Amazon Kindle and in paperback.