Christmas Memories

Each year, when the nights are cold and the days are short, Christians gather together to remember and relive the Christmas story. The Gospels of Luke and Matthew tell a tale full of mystery and surprise. A child is born in an obscure corner of a poor land. He is a child like other children; his parents are people like us; his times are troubled as ours are; the circumstances of his birth — humble, inconvenient, secluded — familiar. Yet the Child was God Himself. His coming divided human history into two parts — that which came before His birth and that which comes after it. He is the center of our faith. And the annual feast of Christmas has become both a spiritual and a social focal point. It’s an occasion to gather as families and communities to remember the coming of Jesus.

Each fall since 1984, the editors of Our Sunday Visitor, a weekly national Catholic newspaper, have asked readers to send in their most vivid and meaningful Christmas memories. The editors have published as many of these as they can in a special section of the newspaper each December. This book is a selection of these memories.

They are as rich and diverse as the story of Christmas itself. We read of acts of kindness and generosity, of gift-giving and sharing, of thankfulness and healing. Some memories are poignant; some are funny. Christmas is a time for families to gather — in joy but also in sorrow. Some of the stories collected here remind us of the pain of the first Christmas: poor travelers without shelter; an untimely birth in a place where animals lived; a man, woman, and child who became refugees to flee a murderous tyrant; a child destined for execution.

The darkness of our world is part of the Christmas story, just as our celebration of Christmas occurs in the dark of winter. Yet at Mass we mark Christ’s birth with words: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." These memories testify to the eternal truth of that ringing affirmation. The light of Christ shines in His people, and it is reflected in their memories of Christmas. The Editors of Our Sunday Visitor

A forever memory

May I always remember it:

Our front parlor is curtained off from floor to ceiling. We children are lined up for the grand Christmas-morning entry. I’m seven years old, sixth one from the top, sensing for the first time how in tune with one another we are. Theodore has just raced back downstairs with his necktie. Margery keeps humming the carol we’ve chosen for the procession. James and John, in Charlie Chaplin style, step in and out of place, tipping their imaginary derbies. David is smiling; this afternoon he’ll be wearing his first pair of long pants. Eleanor and I are smoothing down our look-alike dresses. And now Robert is ready, his little hands receiving the infant figure, his golden curls vibrating with responsibility. As our song gains a bit of volume, Mama opens the curtain.

Oh, let it all remain forever as we saw it then — the very air alive with color, the dazzling tree, the manger scene completed, and, among the gifts, eight pairs of shiny new shoes.

Catherine Morissey, Dunkirk, New York

My first Christmas as a priest

My first Christmas as a priest was not at all what I had expected. The altar-boy rehearsal for Midnight Mass conflicted with the work of the Altar Guild. Confessions, both afternoon and evening, were long and tiring, leaving little time to prepare the Christmas homily. There was standingroom only at the Midnight Mass, but the participation was minimal for the many young couples in attendance, who were on their way to other celebrations. On Christmas morning it seemed that every baby in the parish was at every Mass.

Following the last Mass, the pastor suggested that I make a hurried-up visit to my family home and be back so that he would be free for his family obligations to brothers and sisters. This led to my mother having to change the dinner hour in order to accommodate me in the family plans. So, tired and weary, I began my return journey to the parish. As I approached the top of a steep bridge, stretching four hundred feet above the harbor waters, a guard stepped out in front of my car and singled me to get out of the car. A man was poised to jump. He had climbed over the rail and stood on the narrow ledge.

I prayed! I called out, "Stop! God loves you very much! I am a priest. I can help you — please don’t jump!"

His eyes cleared and he took my hand! Thank God!

The morning paper on December 26, 1962, featured two photographs on the front page: Pope John XXIII visiting a child in an orphanage in Rome, and a young priest joining hands with a troubled person on a bridge. The headline read: "How Some People Spent Christmas." What a great Christmas for me — I have never forgotten it.

Father John J. Geoghan, Weston, Massachusetts

The final shut-off

My boyfriend and I both had jobs, and I was living with my parents, so we were better off than most people in town during the Depression year of 1931. We decided to do something for a poor family at Christmas. I was a cashier at the gas company. I knew who the poor families were because they would come in regularly to beg that their gas be left on, even though they could not pay fifty cents on their overdue bill. I picked out a family that was more than five months overdue on its bill and whose gas was going to be shut off the day after Christmas.

We bought a Christmas tree, decorations, and lights. We bought presents for each member of the family, wrapped the gifts attractively, and then bought food — a turkey and a ham, vegetables, Christmas candy, bread, and a box of my mother’s beautiful, cut-out, frosted, Christmas cookies.

When we arrived at the family’s house on Christmas Eve, my boyfriend and I noticed that the blinds were all pulled to the bottom. We rang and rang the bell; after a long time, one of the children peeked out from behind a window shade. When they saw our arms filled with Christmas gifts and a Christmas tree, they opened the door. We walked into a living room completely devoid of furniture or rugs. In the kitchen was a stove and an empty icebox with the doors open. The kitchen table had orange crates around it. In the bedroom, there were mattresses on the floor, but no furniture. Everything had been sold off, piece by piece, to buy food.

They were overjoyed to see us, and the children started decorating the Christmas tree. The mother carried the groceries to the kitchen with tears in her eyes. We chatted awhile and then got up to leave.

The father of the family walked out to the car with us. Weeping, he told us that he had sealed all the windows and doors in the house. That night, when everyone was asleep, he had planned to turn the gas on so that he and his family would die peacefully.

We were stunned. We emptied our pockets of all the money we had — seven and a half dollars. We promised more help, and got it. Through our efforts, my parents and their friends hired the poor man for yard work and odd jobs. He eventually had a successful gardening business. We collected furniture for their home. What could bring more Christmas joy than saving the lives of five fine people

Mildred H. Rudaick, Marysville, California

Beloved One of Mary

My husband and I have always wanted to have children but we had had great difficulty doing so. After eight years of treatment by fertility specialists, I finally conceived. But it was a difficult, high-risk pregnancy. After four months, we had one of the greatest disappointments of our married lives — we lost our baby. We had become discouraged and disillusioned with the treatments and tests for infertility — and with our faith somewhat.

A year after our loss, we decided to apply for adoption through a local Catholic agency. We began three-and-a-half years of counseling, parenting classes, and seminars to prepare us.

On the Wednesday before Mother’s Day in 1988, we received our child, a daughter. But before we did, we had agreed to risk placement, which means that a child is placed in your home until the birth parents decide to place their child for adoption.

After six long weeks, our daughter’s birth parents terminated their rights. But our daughter was still not legally ours. We had to wait another six months before her adoption was scheduled.

Our daughter, Carissa Marie, which means "Beloved one of Mary," was legally adopted on December 21. She was the greatest Christmas gift we could have ever received. Our love for our daughter is the kind of love we perceive the Lord’s love is for us all: consuming and unconditional.

Jeannie Vig, Huntington, West Virginia

Hot line

For many years, I had taken calls on a crisis-pregnancy hot line from women looking for alternatives to abortion. One evening near Christmas, I was asked to return a call to someone who wanted to talk to no one except "Pat" — me. I reached a lady in the maternity ward of a local hospital. She identified herself as a caller I had spoken to approximately seven months earlier.

She had called our hot line by mistake, thinking that she could schedule an abortion. I had talked to her at great length. She had been worried about her age; I told her that I had my first child at the same age. She already had two boys; I had asked her how she would feel if this was the little girl she had always wanted.

She was calling to thank me. She had just given birth to a beautiful baby girl. This was the only girl on both sides of the family, and both she and her husband were ecstatic!

After I hung up the phone, with tears of joy in my eyes, I told my husband that I didn’t need another thing for Christmas. These were the special moments that made it all worth while.

Pat Grimes, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The great escape

I was but a little girl when my parents made their great escape from Communist Hungary through the heavily forested Vienna Woods, towing behind eight hungry little children.

It was dark in the woods; we had been walking all night. God must have been watching us very closely, for as daybreak approached and our tired little bodies were swaying with exhaustion, there appeared through the thickets two Austrian farmers behind a horse-drawn wagon. Our joy at this sight was indescribable. We hugged one another and danced and cried, and the little ones just stood there, shivering in awe. Wearily we piled into the creaky wagon and drifted off to a deep sleep to the soothing lullaby of Christmas songs bellowed out happily by our drivers. Our journey to freedom had blossomed into reality amidst that cold, gray dawn of Christmas morning.

As we approached the village nestled below the snowcapped mountains, we awoke to the sound of church bells ringing out "Silent Night." It echoed over hundreds of makeshift tents in a refugee camp scattered below us. I saw throngs of people and children laboring their way through the drifts of snow, and I heard laughter and songs fill the air. Eagerly we joined them, embracing and exchanging the news of our escape, united in spirit and ever so thankful.

The many years of oppression had been suddenly lifted from our lives and we were blessed with the most wonderful Christmas gift of all, freedom to yearn and fulfill the heart, mind, and soul in beautiful America, where we were received with open arms, provided a home, and given opportunities beyond our dreams.

Marianna Doan, Arlington, Texas

Make mine coffee

On Christmas Day 1936, my life was changed forever.

I was ten years old. We went to Midnight Mass. After Mass, we hurried home under the cold and starry night to a warm but meager "Depression Christmas" celebration. My aunts and uncles gathered at our house that year because my father was the only one of them gainfully employed in those hard times.

Along about 2:30 or so in the wee hours of Christmas morning, my father plucked a brown paper bag from the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard, pouring little dollops of reddish-purple liquid into glasses for the Big People. I didn’t know it then, but it was port wine.

Almost as an afterthought, he offered me a mouthful or so in a little glass. "Merry Christmas," Poppa intoned solemnly, and they all responded in kind, with a Gaelic phrase or two sprinkled in. Then they quickly downed the contents of their glasses. So I did likewise.

And my life was changed forever. I sensed a euphoria that defied description, and I trembled, faint with awe for the strange sensation that I knew must be sinful because it felt too good not to be. I remember thinking that though I was ten years old, I was ten feet tall, able to leap tall buildings with a single drink. I giggled. I didn’t know it, but I was drunk. Almost instantly. I vaguely remember floating into the living room and interrupting the Big People with some ridiculous remark while staggering visibly.

My parents, shocked, sent me quickly to bed, but all I remember was lying on a downy soft cottony cloud, all my cares and woes gone forever. I was happy and comfortable at last.

I thought I had finally discovered peace. But there was no peace. What I had really discovered was the cunning, baffling, powerful world of the alcoholic. I had had my first drink, my first drunk, my first blackout, my first anti-social behavior; a pattern to be repeated for the next thirty-six years of my alcoholic nightmare.

In 1972 came sobriety and its true inner peace and joy.

A glass of wine? No thank you. Make mine coffee.

And Merry Christmas! Peace at last!

Jack O’Neil, Sewickley, Pennsylvania

The Jewish Christmas tree

I was thirteen years old at Christmas 1967. My father and I were struggling over religion. My father was Jewish and he had raised me to be a devout Jew, believing in the Old Testament as the Word of God. But during my religious instruction I had discovered the new way of life through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. My father was worried sick over me leaving his religion. I was pulling away from the "old" way in which he thought I should conduct my religious affairs. That year we spent many evenings debating my new-found faith.

As the end of the year approached and Christmas drew near, we still had not agreed about which religion I should practice. The turning point came shortly before Christmas. I asked my father if I could have a small Christmas tree. He looked at me with love, and I suppose at that moment he knew that I was committed to my new religion.

He agreed to a tree, but with conditions. The tree had to be small, white, and decorated with only blue bulbs. White and blue — the Jewish colors for royalty.

So as that royal Christmas tree stood on a tiny table in my father’s house, we were at peace. The debate had ended.

Standing side by side, Jew and soon-to-be Catholic, we looked upon that little tree, and it became a symbol of hope and thanksgiving: my father’s hope in the Messianic King, and my thanks to God for giving me a father who loved his daughter enough to allow her little Christmas tree to stand under a Jewish roof.

Pamela Sara Adreme, Hobbs, New Mexico

Stories are from Our Sunday Visitor's Christmas Memories (out of print). Copyright © 1997 by Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., all rights reserved. New Christmas memories can be found in our annual December issue (usually the third week). Call 1-800-348-2440 to order.