On Giants' Shoulders

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Christmas Memories

My memories of Christmas as a child do not center around midnight Mass as they do for many of you. As a matter of fact, we didn't go to church on Christmas at all. There was a Sunday School Christmas program when I was younger and a Christmas cantata that I sang in when I was a teen, but those happened well before Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were undisturbed by church. They even seemed a bit undisturbed by the Christmas story. My mother was more apt to read The Night Before Christmas, or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or recite a poem about Santa Claus and the Mouse. It wasn't that we didn't believe the Christmas story, it's just that somehow on Christmas Day it wasn't the focus of our attention.

We did have a cardboard nativity set that got put out every year. I loved to open it up and place the figures under the Christmas tree. Yet somehow that was the end of Christ's place in our Christmas celebration. This was true even while my mother decried the people (like my aunt!) who put up Merry Xmas signs and our pastor preached on keeping Christ in Christmas.

Even the songs we sang during Advent were the popular songs of the period such as "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," "Winter Wonderland," "Jingle Bells," "All I Want For Christmas is My Two Front Teeth," etc. It was not until I was an adult and married that I discovered my favorite Advent hymn, "Come Thou Long Expected, Jesus."

Our Christmas traditions have been very different. From the very first year of our marriage we went to church on Christmas Eve, we sang Advent hymns during Advent, we had an Advent log (later a wreath), had a real (albeit plastic) nativity set,and on Christmas morning as soon as our oldest was one year old, we had a Christmas bread with lighted candles and sang Happy Birthday to Jesus. Our main Christmas reading when the children were smaller were "Santa Are You For Real" (which has the Christmas story in it), the Christmas story itself, and Madeleine L'Engle's "The Twenty Four Days Before Christmas." We've abandoned the birthday song since the kids got older and we don't read the books anymore either, but we still go to church on Christmas Eve, although now it's to midnight Mass. We don't get home until the wee hours of the morning, but it's worth it. When we get home Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus are lovingly placed in the stable of the nativity set, joined by the shepherds and angel. The Wise men won't arrive for several more days.

Many of my Christmas memories center around things like baking cookies or making sugar plums. Those are still part of the traditions around here as well. We've even added a few food traditions over the years. We have oyster stew on Christmas Eve (or at least the oyster eaters do), we still have my father's omelet on Christmas morning, even though he died before my kids were born. We still have my mother's Christmas bread on Christmas morning, even though she is dead too, and never actually made it for us (she was rarely at our house on Christmas) as the children were growing up. Some of my Christmas cookie cutters are ones I used with my mother when I was a little girl. It always makes me smile when I cut out the bell shaped cookies and remember how we always placed a little silver sugar ball for the clapper.

Our own decision to downplay Santa Claus came out of a sense that in both our families Santa was rather played up too much. At our house St. Nicholas was talked about, but Santa Claus was clearly a mythical figure whom other kids really believed in, but mine (with the exception of one year for my daughter for some mysterious reason) did not. Oh, they watched the same TV shows as the other kids, but they knew that Christmas was about the birth of Jesus.

Now on December 6th I make speculaas cookies and put out a statue of St. Nicholas. My cookie cutters are copper and come from the St. Nicholas Center, but they are not Santa Claus cookies at all. They have St. Nicholas in his bishops attire and the small ones are simple mitre shaped.

We've found, I believe a better balance than our parents. I think there's still more room for improvement, and I hope that the next generation will actually find it. I'm pleased that we now celebrate other feasts during Advent.

The candles were lit in our windows last night for it is just a week now before Christmas and we must welcome our Savior on the way to the big event. The Christmas tree has not been purchased yet, the nativity set is still packed away. But this is the week of preparation. So today I'm baking fruitcake and perhaps making sugar plums. I'm hoping to actually wrap some gifts so that it doesn't all have to be done on Christmas Eve (one of the more unfortunate traditions around here!). I need to find all the Christmas stockings (which somehow don't manage to congregate together in the attic after Christmas!).

Until this week, despite some shopping, it hasn't seemed like time to prepare for Christmas, now it feels like time. My calendar just seems so different from my mother's. She would have had the tree up for at least a week at this point, and her baking would be done, she'd probably be finishing up her Christmas cards, and I haven't even started mine. However, her Christmas celebration would end on the 25th, and ours just begins then.

My mother's celebrations were shaped by the fact that her parents downplayed Christmas. They never had a tree until she was an adult. I'm sure they read the Christmas story, but that was about the extent of it. Even when I was a little girl the Christmas program at church seemed more important to my grandfather than Christmas Day, but that's just my impression. He died when I was fairly young and my grandmother went into a nursing home soon after, most of my memories of Christmas with a grandparent center around my other grandmother, and she was bigger into the Santa Claus aspect of things. My mother shaped her Christmas according to school and Sunday School programs and the offerings of the secular media. She wanted her children to have fun at Christmas, and for the most part we did. My reaction to that as an adult was to attempt to not lose the fun, but change the emphasis. My mother encouraged letters to Santa, we didn't. She was attempting to put joy into something that was pretty somber in her own home, we attempted to put reverence back into the celebration while still keeping the excitement.

I often wonder what shape the next generation will give things. Will they go in for Santa costumes or will they insist on reading the gospel narrative before opening meager presents? Will they retain our traditions or simply come up with a whole new set of their own? As long as they continue to remember what the feast is for it really won't matter whether they flame plum pudding and eat roast beef. The celebration of the Savior's birth comes with a variety of ways of expressing our joy, there isn't just one right way, but expressing the joy is integral.

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