We have entered the most holy of seasons, a time of anticipation, celebration and recognition of Christ, the promised Messiah. Events and images of past Nativity seasons are stamped in my memory, like pictures on a Christmas card. Perhaps it is the same for you.
A few friends will join me to share favorite Christmas memories over the next several weeks. They will be featured here on Mondays and Fridays, kind of like bookends to the busyness of the Christmas season. Their stories and mine are my Christmas gift to you. I know you will enjoy them, and I hope you will share some of your own stories with family and friends.
The first sweet memory that comes to mind for me is wrapped in sensory cues that carry me back to Christmas eve in a little Catholic church in my hometown.
Celebrating mass at midnight was as much a part of my childhood Christmases as candy canes, presents and trips to my grandparents’ house in Chicago. I loved the excitement of being awake so close to the moment when Santa Claus would visit our stone house at the edge of town. My four siblings and I might struggle to stay awake, but arriving home after midnight mass meant we were that much closer to Christmas morning with presents under the tree and good food on the table.
When we were very young, my parents would send us to our rooms for a nap early in the evening then wake us in time to go to church. I remember bundling up to go out in the middle of the night, and in my memory, there was always snow and it was midnight-cold. Our frosty breath hung in the air as we walked down the sidewalk from our car and climbed the stone steps to the wooden doors of the church. Once the doors swung open, warmth and the fragrance of candles and incense pushed away the winter chill.
All was quiet inside the church, except for soft organ music. Another set of steep stairs took us to the holy water font and into the candlelit sanctuary. We knew without being told that we had to whisper, or not talk at all, as we made our way to the pews, genuflecting before slipping onto the wooden seats and making the sign of the cross without even thinking of the symbolism behind the gesture. A prayer offered up at the padded kneeling bench and perhaps the lighting of votive candles in the corner near the statue of Jesus were preludes to the main reason for venturing out on a cold Indiana winter night.
The clanging of incense jars hanging from chains signaled the entrance of the priest and his servers. Robed in white and gold with a purple sash draped around his neck, the priest walked slowly down the short aisle and greeted us “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”
Latin was still the language of the Catholic church when I was growing up, and I had much of the service in my memory almost before I knew what the words meant. I was a little saddened when Catholics began celebrating mass in English. I left the church soon after the change and I remember Latin now as a beautiful language shared by me and the mysterious Trinity as I knelt to worship. (When given a choice in high school, I chose to study Latin rather than Spanish. It’s a language I still love.)
We celebrated “high mass”, so for an hour we would stand, sing, kneel and sit as directed. When I was old enough, I walked with the others to the altar for Holy Communion. The movement helped to keep me awake — or at least that’s how I remember it. I’m sure some dozing took place as well.
Mass ended shortly after we received Holy Communion, once the priest had finished cleaning the golden vessels with his white cloths. A Christmas blessing was bestowed and we were dismissed with this admonition:
“Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
Sometimes there were donuts or cookies and juice in the basement after mass, but most often we were anxious to hurry home in case Santa had arrived early. Driving through the middle of our little town, we passed the courthouse square, which was lit from top to bottom with strings of multi-colored lights. It was beautiful, especially in snowfall.
I am no longer a “practicing Catholic”, but I have returned for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve many times. The beauty of the service and the mystery of the night never fails to impress on me the wonder of The Nativity.