Try as hard as they can, I don’t believe stores and malls and advertising can ever ruin Christmas for me. I grew up in an Irish Catholic home where Christmas was a cherished celebration. It meant attendance at Christmas mass where I loved the parish nativity scene and all the various liturgical Christmas celebrations and the Christmas songs. We spent part of the holiday with my father’s family and part with my mother’s family, sometimes combining both.
Though the musical genes had missed my immediate family they were prevalent in my mother’s twin sister’s family. Uncle Jim and my cousins Franny and Jimmy were musical . They lived in an apartment in New York City, across from Barnard College where my mother and Aunt Marg had attended college. One Christmas Eve that I will never forget we heard music coming from outside. We went out on their balcony and could see and hear carolers walking on Claremont Avenue below us. I can’t remember what floor their apartment was on but it could not have been too high up because when we joined the carolers in singing they welcomed us . Initially the carolers led the singing but when there was a pause they suggested we start the next song which Uncle Jim and Jimmy did. I don’t know how old I was at the time – maybe nine or ten – but I was in seventh heaven. I felt like we were all characters in a special Christmas show. And I don’t know if it was real or if my imagination just added it, but I remember a soft snowfall in the background.
As a young married couple in the post depression 1930’s and 1940’s my parents worked hard to make a go of it financially. Upon graduation from law school, my father took a job with the New York City school system so that we would have a steady family income and good health insurance. They gradually grew a successful law practice but it took a number of years.
I think as children we had an understanding that money was tight, but maybe not really. I remember repeatedly asking for a pair of pretty white boots which might have seemed to be frivolous on my part since, after all I did have my brothers’ hand-me-down ugly galoshes. One Christmas I asked only for the coveted white boots. As it got closer to Christmas I was aware of my mother putting packages in her bedroom closet. One day when my parents were downstairs and my brothers outside I snuck into the closet. I couldn’t believe it but the boots were actually there. As I quickly left the closet – I didn’t want to get caught – I was overcome with a mixture of emotions.
First, I couldn’t share with my brothers what I had done even though we were still at the age where we were pretty good sharers, and I couldn’t tell my parents. So come Christmas morning I had to pretend surprise at my pretty boots. I never checked the gift closet again and the boots, which were exactly what I wanted, had lost some of their magic.
At a pretty young age come the first Sunday of Advent, I started saying the Christmas novena – not sure if this came from my mother (a strong believer in novenas) or from the Catholic grade school my brothers and I attended.
Hail and blessed be the hour and the moment when the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary at midnight in Bethlehem in the piercing cold. At that hour and moment vouchsafe oh my God to hear my prayers and to grant my desires through the merits of our Savior Jesus Christ and His blessed mother, Amen.
This is a simple prayer – the only catch is that it should be said 15 times each day between the first Sunday of Advent and Christmas day. I don’t think I was ever told but I believed that each petition required a separate novena . When I was young I often said my novena prayers at breakneck speed because I had a number of petitions I was working on. Good thing God is very understanding – many times my petitions were actually answered.
Of recent years I have taken a more appropriate approach to the Christmas novena. It has become a very soothing mantra for me to repeat during Advent. It is so easy to get caught up in the sales pitches and fluff of Christmas. The words of the Christmas novena help center me.
In addition to the Christmas tree, when our children were small we always had a creche and an Advent wreath. At the start of Advent we put out the creche and gradually added the figures. At least once a week we would light the wreath candles and with the guidance of a prayer book we would celebrate our own family Advent liturgy. Once the children were grown and on their own, our Advent ceremony kind of fell by the wayside. But this year we have reinstated it – in modified form. It is nice.
In just a few days it will be Christmas. So much to look forward to, so much to be thankful for.