A Christmas Long, Long Ago

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“Go to church, you’ll get a candle and a sweet roll,” my Mom says. “And you’ll be out of the apartment so we can finish all the decorating.” She doesn’t say the last part, but it is implied. For most of Christmas Eve, my Mom disappears into the living room, separated from the rest of the apartment by its own door. The murky glass of the door and its key hole were covered up after some clever kids discovered they still allowed peeking. Not this year. Besides some minimal decorations in other rooms or the Advent wreath, nothing has been decorated for Christmas yet: No tree, no ornaments, no wrapped presents. It is blind anticipation. The best kind.

We go to the Roman Catholic church across the street once a year by not-entirely-free choice. It is Christmassy, and we do get a nice candle and sweet roll, but I don’t remember much else about it, except that in latter years it was just us kids so that Mom could finish decorating. The big moment, the opening of the presents, will happen after dinner this evening. So, of course, we help with dinner. Anything to speed that along. I remember it being simple: bread, some meats and cheeses, maybe soup. A piece of cold fish, eaten in our small kitchen illuminated by a few candles to set the mood.

After dinner, we wait in our rooms for the “Christ Child” to arrive with presents. What is taking so long?? Then the bell rings: The sweetest sound in all the world! Everyone rushes to the still covered and closed living room door. Through it, we see the glow of the decorations, hear the Christmas music, smell the Christmas smells. My Mom, big smile on her face, opens the door and ushers us in. Arctic explorers couldn’t be more disoriented for the few seconds we need to take it all in. The small, decorated tree up on the table with wrapped presents all around; light strings across the whole room; the little Christmas town illuminated by little lanterns, light streaming from their tiny windows as if their inhabitants were doing the same thing we are; Christmas music softly playing from the speakers. We didn’t have a lot of things other people had, but today it doesn’t matter, because this is generosity on full display. If not materially, at least in spirit, and it is that spirit that permeates everything tonight. We get presents, we give presents, we spend the rest of the evening playing and talking and laughing and eating.

The next morning we are all up early. We pack a week’s worth of clothes and our new toys and wait for our Dad to come pick us up. On the way to his apartment, we excitedly show him everything we got the night before. When we arrive, we find more presents under the tree that we bought and decorated together a couple of weeks earlier. For the next week, we spend time together on walks, with friends and more family, and playing with our new toys. Christmas is over, and it was worth the wait.

Today, Christmas means more because we know the One whom we celebrate. Our traditions help us make it memorable. We go to church on Christmas Eve because we want to worship God the Son Incarnate together with his people. When we get home, we have a “German” candle light dinner and let the kids unwrap a couple of presents that magically appeared where none were before: Usually new pyjamas and a book (don’t tell them, though they kinda already figured it out over the years). We spend the rest of the evening reading and talking and laughing and eating.

The next morning, the scene in the cover photo awaits them. Candy canes lead the way from their bedrooms to the living room, the stockings are stuffed, and they see presents for the first time under the tree. Lights are strung across the room and Christmas smells permeate the air. And so, history repeats itself with old traditions and new, but a better Foundation. Even the little Christmas town in all its splendor joins in our celebration. Probably.