This is a difficult time of year for many folks. For some, it is a time of traumatic memories being stirred up. For others, it is a time when already intense grief deepens.
In my work, I bear witness to such pain. Thus, just this past week I sat with a young man who was injured in an IED blast during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. I sat with a woman who witnessed her son’s suicide. I sat with the adult child of an alcoholic who regularly was drunk by noontime on Christmas Day.
I find myself resonating to the words of the Jackson Brown song The Rebel Jesus when he cautions that those who question why there are poor will “get the same as the Rebel Jesus.” As I ponder His birth, I fear we all have missed His message.
In the midst of such heaviness, though, I take great comfort in some of my own Christmas memories. No, I don’t have a story about a Red Ryder BB gun. In fact, I don’t have a clear memory of any particular gift. But the two memories I want to share with you point me back to what I believe this holiday is meant to be about.
The first memory comes after Midnight Mass at the local residence for elderly nuns. The Mass itself was a High Mass with beautiful hymns from the nun’s choir and clouds of frankincense rising to the ceiling. Such sounds and smells are holy in my memory. But the best part came after one particular Mass.
These events usually lasted 2-3 hours, in part because the nuns would treat us altar boys to hot chocolate and cookies afterwards. On this particular night, while we were indoors, a heavy snow came over Scranton. Our walk home would take us across a hockey field at the local women’s college. During Mass, the field was snow-covered and ours were its first footprints. I remember the untouched snow and the deep silence that comes to a town after a heavy storm is over.
Somehow the memory of that field and the silence is sacred to me — a glimpse of God’s presence. It was, I believe, a mystical moment.
The second memory comes on Christmas Day. My mother came from a large Irish Catholic family and so on this particular day we had a total of 10 people gathered about our table. There were of course my Mom and Dad, my brother and me.
My Aunt Dorothy was there. She was my dad’s only siblings and had never married. She was known and loved by my Mom’s family and was the one who introduced me to classical music.
Aunt Mary was there. She suffered from some form of schizophrenia and talked to herself non-stop.
My Uncle Joe and Aunt Kathleen were there. I especially liked my Uncle Joe. A heavy smoker, he cussed like a sailor (which he had been in World War 2) and pointed me towards a love of the Boston Redsox.
Great Aunt Margaret Lynch was there. How old was she? No one really knew. She was likely close to 90. Here was a woman who was liberated long before it became fashionable. She had worked as a buyer for a store in New York. As such, she had been in Paris when Lindbergh landed and had seen Babe Ruth play baseball (“Clumsiest man I’ve ever seen!”)
And Aunt Peg and Uncle Gaddy were there. Aunt Peg was my Mom’s older sister and had helped raised her siblings after my grandmother died of influenza in 1919. Uncle Gaddy was a fireman — a burly man who spoke with a brogue. Given that all my grandparents were dead before I turned 7, these two became my surrogate grandparents. Aunt Peg had brought with her the best peanut butter cookies ever made!
I can see them all around the table and that picture in my mind is a gift, reminding me of the specialness of family and the passage of time.
Reflection: Do you have any special memories of Christmas?