I used to lead an annual English Department literary trail for Grade 12s to Dublin, Ireland. I remember on one trip coming across the illuminated manuscript of the ninth century poem, Pangur Bán, in a display in the magnificent library at Trinity College.
It is a poem about a scholar and his companion, a white cat. As his cat stealthily stalks and pounces upon unsuspecting mice, the scholar works on illuminated manuscripts at his desk:
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
The following year, we used the poem for the scholarship exam for incoming students.
I like the couplet: ‘I get wisdom day and night / Turning darkness into light.'
This is the theme of my reflection this evening.
As you know, the Lamonts have lived in the Nordic region for the past six years. One Scandinavian tradition that we loved was Santa Lucia – on Saint Lucy’s Day on December 13th – with the saint as the bearer of light in the darkness of winter.
Schoolchildren would dress in full-length white gowns with red belts with one child at the front of the candlelit procession wearing a wreath of candles on her head – candlelight and song penetrate the darkness in this festival of light.
As you will have noticed, the God Squad has a slightly different look this evening. The Rev and I invited some students with Nordic backgrounds to join this evening’s Chapel procession dressed in traditional Santa Lucia garments.
Please – adults, students and children – put your hands up if you identify as having Viking blood in you.
We have many students with first and family names of Nordic backgrounds: Gunnar, Kvanli, Tangeraas, Christensen, Persson, Sveistrup, and around 25 students on campus who self-identify as from families of Nordic origin.
I am going to invite tonight’s God Squad to step up to sing the ‘Santa Lucia’ in Norwegian with a little help from their friends – the Lamonts, Geir Kvanli (father of Nikolas) and Trisha Daniell, our organist.
This is the third time we have rehearsed. The words (and translation) are on the back of your order of service. You are welcome to hum along or sing with us. I shall be sending the live stream to Sonja, Queen of Norway, as a Christmas greeting.
No pressure, team.
Saint Lucy's Latin name Lucia shares a root (luc-) with the Latin word for light, lux. At least 100 students in here will know this, as the Copeman’s motto is ‘Ubi crux ibi lux’ — ‘Where there is a cross, there is light’ and the Lonsdale’s motto is ‘Ex Fumo Dare Lucem’ – ‘To give light from smoke’.
Coincidentally, we chose to have our uplifting sporting of Christmas sweaters on December 13th, Saint Lucy’s Day – Shawnigan’s own interpretation.
At this time, across the world, the Chanukah lights are lit in Jewish households, and in China, Japan and Korea, people are celebrating Dōngzhì, the arrival of winter, by eating traditional warming food.
The other major event I associated with Advent from our time in Scandinavia was the focus on the Nobel Prizes – announced in October each year for Chemistry, Physics, Medicine, Economics and Literature and awarded on the 10th December in Stockholm Sweden.
Some of you might know who Alfred Nobel was a Swedish inventor, entrepreneur, scientist and businessman – whose most significant invention was dynamite.
In his will, he requested that his fortune – built on the profits of nineteenth century warfare – be divided into prizes for “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.”
He also established a prize to be awarded for ‘champions of peace’ in Oslo, Norway.
Last December, it was a great privilege to be invited to take some students to attend the 2017 Peace Prize Ceremony – and to be present as the Nobel Institute recognised an organisation’s commitment towards a world without nuclear weapons. Meeting Japanese survivors of the atomic bombs of 1945 was unforgettable – and so was listening to their stories.
Eight days ago, in the City Hall in Oslo, The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize for 2018 to Denis Mukwege, a doctor from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nadia Murad, a 25 year old Yazidi from Northern Iraq, for putting their personal security at risk by courageously striving to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.
In many ways, Nobel turned the darkness of dynamite into the light of the Nobel Prizes – beacons of hope.
I will always associate December with Santa Lucia and the Nobel Prizes, both festivals and celebrations of light in a darkening world.
This has been an exciting term – thank you for all that you have given and for striving to be the best version of yourselves.
I drew your attention at the beginning of term to the words by Nelson Mandela in the opening pages of the Gold Book:
"What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead."
The difference we have made to the lives of others – to our families, to our friends, to members of our community, to strangers we have met – define who we are.
During the course of this term all of us have been given the opportunity to make a positive and supportive contribution and to make a difference to our Shawnigan community. I trust that you can pause to reflect on the term gone by with pride and to consider what difference you have, as an individual, made to the lives of others.
Please consider this also as you step beyond our campus for the Christmas break and step into other communities which ask for your contribution.
I sat in the front row last year with Kathini, Phoebe and Poppy – the snow had arrived unexpectedly at Shawnigan and the stag, proud sentinel at the gates, sported snowy antlers.
The lighting of candles towards the end of the service reminded me of an advent carol service that I used to be in charge of on the 1st December each year at a school in England with the chapel’s seating capacity at around a thousand. The interior was different to our chapel here at Shawnigan as the student pews faced each other across the nave with the staff sitting around the perimeter. It was always a logistical challenge with parents and students streaming into the chapel for the candlelit and rather magical annual service – with the prefects skillfully rising to the challenge of coordinating the pedestrian flow.
There was always the added thrill of trusting students (and adults) with candles, with the ever-present temptation of singeing the hair or garments of the person in the row in front.
At my last service there, I was observing, from my vantage point in the chapel, the prefects beginning to move into position ready to invite the congregation to leave pew by pew, when a colleague’s wife directly opposite began to gesticulate in my direction. I looked around me a little bewildered by this unrehearsed addition to my precise military plans for withdrawal to assess the source of this response.
I suddenly realised that I had lent back against a tea-light on the shelf above my seat and my black academic gown had erupted into flames.
Being British and trained in understatement in moments of extreme crisis, I considered how I could respond to the inferno erupting behind me without distracting others from the end of the service. I quietly rebuffed the efforts of another colleague next to me intent on quelling the flames and quietly – as if an every day event – dropped my academic gown from my shoulders and proceeded subtly to attempt to control the flames by treading on the gown.
Crisis averted, I looked up to discover the whole section of congregation opposite me collapsing in laughter at the accidental combustion of my gown.
From darkness into light.
I learnt that day that the material of academic gowns is highly flammable.
If you look closely on Closing Day, you will see that there is a large square patch on the back of my academic gown – evidence of its near demise.
With this tale in mind, enjoy the ambience of the candlelit hymn later on in this service and avoid setting fire to your neighbour or yourself!
To everyone celebrating at this time of year, my family and I wish you a happy and restful holiday. May the New Year bring with it peace and happiness.
It is a great privilege to be your Headmaster.
Richard D A Lamont
18th December, 2018