Clutching at straws

Andrew O’Connell examines a Christmas tradition

There is always a small scrum in front of the crib in our local church after the late Mass on Christmas Eve. Some kneel and whisper a prayer while others stand and gaze at this familiar and timeless scene.

This year I spotted something which I hadn’t noticed before. After saying a few prayers, several people reached into the crib. With short, sharp, and semi-surreptitious movements straw from the manger disappeared into handbags and coat pockets. One man left looking like the TV scarecrow Worzel Gummidge, straw sticking out of his top pocket.

I asked some wise heads to explain and it turned out that it is a well established tradition. One woman told me that the straw from the Christmas crib was always brought home to a sick or housebound relative to help them feel a part of the Christmas celebration. Most people, she said, placed it in their prayer books for the year ahead while others placed it over pictures in the house to be joined later in the year by the palm.

Another woman proudly told me that all the straw in her crib at home had been gathered over the years from different churches around the country.

It seems to be a popular tradition too. One crib I visited in a Dublin church on the Epiphany seemed to have been almost entirely raided with only yellow dust left to keep the Holy Family warm.

As is always the danger with popular practices, superstition can easily creep in. A friend in Dublin told me that his father always put a wisp of straw in his wallet in the hope that it might never be empty during the year. The straw, he hoped, might bring a bit of luck.

The basis of the tradition is sound and well rooted though. The straw is a reminder of the mystery of the incarnation and the bold assertion of our faith that God took human flesh, in the midst of poverty. Looking at the straw throughout the year helps us to remember that God is very close to us.

In the poverty of our own situation we can always be hopeful because, in the words of Pope Francis, “we know that we are loved, visited and accompanied by God”.

A simple piece of straw reminds us of the “whole of Christianity”:  that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

As we begin another year, that’s a straw well worth clutching at.
Sport and spirituality
Sport can be a very effective way of communicating positive values such as perseverance, honesty, and team work to young people. These issues will be discussed at a conference entitled ‘Exploring the Link between Sport and Spirituality’ which takes place at St Patrick’s College in Thurles on January 24 and 25.

The opening keynote address will explore how sport helps to build character while another session will explore the relationship between sport and morality. The conference concludes with a talk on ‘Preparing for the Big Day’ by current Tipperary hurling manager, Dr Eamon O’Shea.

 It’s an event that should appeal to those who mightn’t ordinarily attend a church conference. 

One of the organisers is Fr Tom Fogarty, president of St Patrick’s College. Fr Tom hurled with the Tipperary seniors before going on to manager both the Tipperary and Offaly senior teams.


Another Midnight Mass

The explosion of fireworks heralded the arrival of the New Year at the harbour in Dun Laoghaire this year but for hundreds more it was the familiar prayers of the Mass that ushered in 2014.

Fr Aidan Caroll in St Michael’s Parish, Dun Laoghaire and Fr Brian O’Sullivan in neighbouring St Joseph’s Parish, Glasthule had the wonderful idea of celebrating Masses at 11.30pm on New Year’s Eve to thank God for the year ended and to bless the year to come.

Irish people tend to be night owls and the appropriateness of marking the arrival of a New Year with prayer suggests that this is an initiative that would be quite popular elsewhere too.

I used to live in a parish that held a 6pm Family Mass on New Year’s Day as a way of beginning the year together in prayer. It drew large crowds.

Perhaps it’s something for parish pastoral councils to consider for next year!