Awash in preparations for this present Christmastide, I find myself moving in mind to remembrances of my childhood Christmases. Every family has a unique set of traditions and ways to remember Christ’s coming. My family’s Christmases were shaped by my Mother.
Mama reveled in Christmas! All year she would haunt the best sales, the ones with $1.00 tables. Patiently, with all the skill of a predator stalking its prey, she would sift through the tangled piles of merchandise, walking away in triumph endless minutes later with the one perfect bargain on the table. All year, she would squirrel away these precious ‘finds’. And her evenings during the week before Christmas were devoted to wrapping these treasures in pretty paper, gorgeous homemade bows – she learned to make them at Marshall Field’s, working as a Christmas temp in the wrapping room – and all sorts of decorations.
We would end up with a veritable mountain of presents under the tree on Christmas morning. Upon unwrapping them all, we might find that she had wrapped four pairs of socks for us in eight packages! But there was the appearance of abundance, which Mama loved, having grown up in the depression; having had to skimp and make do for all her own childhood years.
My Pop was also a depression baby, and the experience had hit him hard. He was at work on the street corner from the age of five, selling newspapers to help the family buy bread. His brilliant father was a sot and no provider, and the responsibility of paying the bills fell to his remarkable mother, who worked as housemother for an orphanage in order to house her own children. He never questioned needing to help out. But he never had a childhood.
This experience left Pop a confirmed miser; nay, a Scrooge. He resisted Christmas with every bone in his body. Finally, at about four o’clock on Christmas Eve, when nothing but bargains were left, he would grudgingly set out to purchase a Christmas tree. He would bring home a scraggly fir orphan, assymetrical and homely, with a hole in the branches here and a twist in the trunk there. Then Mama would have him turn the tree around, while she looked for its best side.
While the Christmas Oratorio played on the record player, she and we children, the three of us, would take out the ornaments she saved so lovingly from year to year and add them to the lights Pop had already put on the tree. Then she took out old-fashioned tinsel strands and placed one after the other on each branch until the entire tree shimmered in the lamplight. I will never forget her face, glowing with the joy of the moment, creating a thing of utter beauty out of the tree that had looked so ratty and tatty when Pop first brought it in.
After a late dinner, we all went to midnight mass to sing in the choir. The whole family was musical, to the point that when I was fourteen years old and my baby brother, Tommy, was christened, Father Bill Gentleman, our priest, introduced him to the congregation as the newest member of the choir.
For me, the Christmas Eve service is still the very heart of Christmas. The name means ‘Christ’s Mass’. A universe of faith and devotion to Jesus always coalesces for me within the finite bounds of that infinite remembrance of Christ’s birth. Carol builds upon carol, anthem upon anthem and the familiar words of the service bring the energy of adoration and praise to a peak at the Holy Eucharist.
“The bread of life.” “The cup of salvation.” At the altar rail, the glory of the lord shines round about us. His presence is very real to me. “Take this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for thee,” says the priest, and I bow my head and whisper, “I will remember you, my beloved Lord.”
I go back to my seat in the chancel choir and open myself to the moment of utter awareness that, in the rough straw of a stable manger, my Beloved has come into this world and is present in my life all over again! That manger becomes my heart, and like Mary, I wish only to behold Him there and welcome Him into my life. I love the old hymn, whose last verse is,
“What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part.
Yet what I can, I give Him – give my heart.”
This year, Mick and I will welcome beloved friends into our home for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We will go to the Midnight Service together, come home for a sweet sleep and then spend Christmas Day opening our presents, enjoying Christmas dinner and whiling away the day in delicious leisure. Over New Year’s, my little brother Tommy, now over fifty years of age, will bring his wife and three children for a Rueckert family gathering. As we talk of old times and learn of what each person is doing now – at work, at school and in life in general – we will feel the tug of our mutual roots; the reassurance of family ties and shared love. It will be a time of happiness and warmth. We are fortunate that our family does not quarrel, so all will be “merry and bright”.
Yet for me, the very center of Christmas remains that moment in the Midnight Service when all the church lights are dimmed or shut off, candles are lit in each worshiper’s hand, and we sing
“Silent night! Holy night!”
I open my arms and embrace your spirit. May we all rejoice together at this holy time! May we see our own spirits, newly born, growing more and more to maturity within us, in the rough straw of our hearts. May we come to love ourselves and each other as He loves us!