"The decorations, the music, the crèche, the shoulder-to-shoulder, better-get-there-early, standing-room-only crowd, the unparalleled beauty of Christ’s arrival and His sacrifice – along with anticipating what came after – made this night magical, indeed."Being part of my mom’s large Catholic family, and spending my first seven grades in Catholic school, I recall vibrantly holy and wholesome past Christmases.
Before Christmas Mass became a children’s Mass (reminiscent of a school pageant), it was reverent, beautiful, solemn, yet celebratory -- the essence, in my memory, of the Catholic celebration of Christ’s birth and ultimate sacrifice.
For the month prior, we prepared in school for the miraculous coming of our infant savior. Besides studying Bible stories and the Baltimore Catechism, and unfolding our Advent calendars, we incorporated the mystery and wonder of Christ’s coming into literary and art projects and mini-dramas.
As Christmas day approached, we spent more time in church for choir practice. Sister Charlotte, the organist, arranged prayers to fit Christmas hymns, which we students carefully and joyfully then sang from our pews in the choir loft at midnight
Preparations at home began weeks in advance, too. Mom usually made me a new dress; perhaps I’d get a new coat. We’d bake sand tarts and pineapple filled cookies, Santa-shaped sugar-type, and Mom’s caramel-topped applesauce cakes – gifts for the teachers!
My siblings and I looked forward to finding a few surprises the next morning, as we decorated the tree on Christmas Eve and placed the crèche beneath it. Situating the tree in front of the double windows required rearranging living room furniture, adding to the sense of accommodating the Christ child in our home.
Midnight Mass, though, brought the denouement. The decorations, the music, the crèche, the shoulder-to-shoulder, better-get-there-early, standing-room-only crowd, the unparalleled beauty of Christ’s arrival and His sacrifice – along with anticipating what came after – made this night magical, indeed.
The longer-than-usual service ended after 1 a.m. Then everyone in my mother’s family – who traveled from various states, and filled a significant portion of the church pews – gathered once again at her parents’ home for breakfast.
We scrambled dozens of eggs and fried pounds of puddin’ to feed upwards of probably 60, some years. We know the tradition started as early as 1963, because we have group photos that show my right arm in a cast: I broke it on the playground in second grade.
After breakfast, around 4 a.m., we all gathered in my grandparents’ spacious living room. We cousins gave each other our jingle gifts and distributed those from the pile under the tree. Everyone got something from Grandma and Grandpap, and their seven daughters exchanged gifts. The revelry continued until sunup.
Returning home on Christmas day, we opened the gifts under our own tree: Usually a book (most memorably, The Yearling), a board game (Scrabble), clothes (a nightgown and underwear), perhaps a doll (Shirley Temple), or candy (Life Savers book). Then we’d read, play, or sleep.
Twenty-five years or so have passed since our last Christmas gathering at Grandma’s house, but Mom’s sister Frances keeps a holiday tradition going. This year, we'll gather after the New Year at her farmhouse in
Sadly, most in the younger generations don’t practice the faith, and those who do might need to travel a distance to experience a traditional, beautiful and reverent Catholic Christmas Mass. Staged to accommodate children -- or to appeal to the child within – most Christmas Masses today emote and entertain, rather than inspire and elevate.
At this time of year, I am grateful to my parents (my father converted from the Episcopal Church), Mom’s parents and their parents, and the priests and nuns of my youth, for making my Catholic upbringing real, and my Christmas memories rich.