Veni, Veni, Emmanuel

I didn’t realize this past Sunday was already the first Sunday in Advent; for some reason I didn’t think Advent ever started during November. Since this was a late Thanksgiving, I should have known better.

Not that I do anything special to observe Advent now, but with my Catholic school upbringing, I’m rooted in the evergreen ring with the three purple and one pink candle.

My first exposure to Advent was probably first grade at St. Rose School in the East End in Cincinnati. I’m sure we had an Advent wreath. Sister Ann George actually lighting the candles each week may be a figment of my imagination. I’m not sure live flames in the classroom were legal by the time I entered grade school (or maybe that is a figment of my imagination). I do have a memory of a nun lighting a candle, leading us in a hymn or prayer, and then quickly blowing out the candle again. Maybe she was doing it on the sly and was trying not to get caught.

I think first grade was also my introduction to “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Since Latin was still such a part of our prayers and hymns pre-Vatican II, we actually sang it as “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel.” The version I first learned wasn’t the more Medieval-sounding tune everyone sings now (see video above). I learned from Wikipedia that the lyrics were eventually set to other melodies, but I’m not sure which one I first learned. That first-grade version didn’t have nearly the mystery of the more common melody, which is the one I relate to now.

I have a terrible sense of smell and can’t usually pick up on aromas; yet in memory, especially childhood memories, smells come through vividly. Advent conjures up the fragrances of melting candle wax and evergreens quite vividly. At least once we tried to have an Advent wreath at home. By this time we lived in Oakley. We never had a live tree and Mom couldn’t spare money for evergreen boughs for our wreath, so I went out front and clipped sprigs from our shrubs, which I don’t recall even having a smell (they did have blunt needles and poisonous berries). Whatever kind of shrub it was, my olfactory memory must be reaching back to church or the classroom. (I think we went through the ritual of lighting the candle, etc., the first Sunday but nothing after that. We just weren’t the practice-faith-in-the-home kind of family.)

I also had an initial negative reaction to Advent as putting a damper on the Christmas season just when things were getting fun. As part of our Advent observation in first grade, Sister Ann George set up an empty shoebox and a container filled with mimeographed slips of paper with printing on them. These were straws of “hay” and the idea was to pluck a straw each day, do whatever the words suggested, then put the straw in the box, or “manager,” to prepare the bed for Baby Jesus’ arrival. Unfortunately, the straws offered suggestions for all kinds of self-deprivation, such as “give up your favorite TV show.” If the suggestions were for extra prayers, I was fine. Giving up television wasn’t something I was inclined to do, although I still put the straw in the box as if I’d sacrificed the way a good little Catholic girl is supposed to. I’m afraid it foreshadowed just what kind of Catholic, or non-Catholic, I would morph into as the years passed.

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