If you have followed my writing journey at all, you know that most of my books have in some way been inspired by my childhood or my children’s childhoods. My newest book, HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHRISTMAS CHILD, is no exception. Indeed, as I was writing it, all sorts of memories became sparks — including one that I’d like to share today.
In the fall of 1977 eight-year-old me moved with my family from Minnesota to Paris, France where everything was new and different including…school! The school my parents chose was called Marymount International School of Paris. It was a special place. For starters, it was within walking distance from our apartment which meant good exercise for us all. Second, the children who attended were from around the world and I quickly made friends from all over including Norway, Sweden, Pakistan and Scotland.
Here are two pictures from the time. The first shows me and my sister standing outside our apartment, ready for the first day of school. (I’m the taller one.) The second picture was also taken that school year and shows us with our Norwegian friend tromping to Marymount through the snow.
The third special thing about the school was that it had nuns! I had never been to a Catholic school before. The older nuns wore habits with wimples, just like the nuns in The Sound of Music. The younger nuns didn’t wear habits. Instead, they wore simple sweaters or tops in soft, solid colors, pleated skirts and sensible shoes (as my mother called them).
My teacher’s name was Sister Michelle and she was one of the younger nuns. Her classroom was situated on the 1er étage (2nd floor) of an old French maison. It had formerly been a very grand bedroom with tall decorative plaster walls, an elegant marble fireplace, and two sets of original French-door-style windows that overlooked the school’s playground.
Sister Michelle’s desk was directly in front of those windows and I remember it as being piled with books and papers and other teacher-y things. We students sat at four clusters of desks pressed together to make “tables”. Mine was near the fireplace.
Here is a picture my dad found of me at my table with Sister Michelle presiding. It might be hard to tell from the picture, but Sister Michelle was no-nonsense, yet kind, and she got me excited about reading and math.
But my favorite memory about her, and the one which was brought vividly to mind as I wrote this newest book, dates to December 1st, 1977. That’s the day she brought in the candle.
We all watched as she set it on a little table next to her desk. The candle was long and tapered with numbers from 1 (at the top) to 25 (at the base) imprinted down the side. Sister Michelle then explained that the Christmas season was special and that as part of advent, we would be taking a few moments each morning to light the candle, read a short Christmas passage, say a prayer, and then blow out the the candle. Pointing to the numbers, she explained that each day we’d let the candle burn until that day’s number melted.
I had never heard of such an activity, but it soon became my favorite part of the day. That’s because Sister Michelle wasn’t the one to light the candle, read the passage, and pray. NO! We the kids did that and from my eight-year-old perspective that was amazing! She was supervising from close by, but still! I’d never lit a candle before or read a Bible verse aloud to my class.
Looking back, I realize that those Christmas verses we read along with the candle lighting left a beautiful imprint on my heart as to what Christmas is really all about – the birth of Christ, the Savior of the World.
The experience also opened my heart to the richness of digging into God’s word -not just for the 25 days leading up to Christmas, but every day. I have Sister Michelle to thank for that — for instilling in me the importance of pausing daily to read God’s word, to pray, and to let that moment set the course for the day.
Of course, the little ones I wrote HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHRISTMAS CHILD for are too young yet to be reading and pondering scripture, but they can still enjoy slowing down to count and point to and wonder at the miracle of Christmas as they enjoy my simple recounting of the night Jesus was born.
For years I have been searching, unsuccessfully, for where I might purchase a candle like Sister Michelle had all those years ago. They are very hard to find. In fact, I had pretty much given up hope, but then, my Lexington VA friend, Phyllis, surprised me with this! It turns out Phyllis has been making numbered Christmas candles for years, giving over 50 each year to family and friends. She takes regular-old red candles and green crayon wax that she melts to inscribe the numbers using a thin paint brush. It’s almost exactly like the one Sister Michelle used except that Sister Michelle’s, as I recall, was white. I can’t wait to start lighting it on December 1st.
How I would love it if Sister Michelle could see this post and know the impact her Christmas candle activity has had. Maybe one of your shares will land in the feed or inbox of someone who knows her. Wouldn’t that be neat? It may be a long shot, but this is the season of miracles, right?
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