Christmas takes us back

Every year, Our Sunday Visitor asks our readers to send in their favorite Christmas memories, as well as their original Christmas poems. Without fail, these offerings transport our editorial staff back through time and across space as we receive accounts of Christmases from long ago. From edible Christmas trees to vivid farmhouse memories, allow the stories and poems from fellow readers remind us of the important parts of the season: family and faith, gratitude and generosity.

God with us

We await the coming of the sun
Throughout the dark of winter night
Though but a child, the King will be
Emmanuel — our Light.
The signs watched-for through many years
Will come to play their holy part
Virgin mother; shining star
Proclaim God’s wondrous art.
And so to us a miracle
Is given for all time to come
The Child of innocence and peace
For freedom fought and won.
No longer death and winter hold
We have a pathway through the night
More than a child, the King is now
Emmanuel — our Light!

Erin O’Leary, Mendota Heights, Minnesota

December

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King of light,
Born this night,
From the darkness of the womb,
To the darkness of the tomb,
He will light our way.
To the dawn of day,
Forever bright,
God of love and of might,
To seal our hearts with love,
With the one and only God above.

Mother of light,
Who gave birth in the night,
To a Mighty Son of Old,
To lead the sheepfold,
Through the valleys of time,
To the eternal waters, and heaven sublime,
So we always remember,
On this day of December
With joy and mirth,
Jesus, Son of God, his birth.

Jeanette Behlow-Metzger, Chagrin Falls, Ohio

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A Christmas prayer

May my heart and soul
Be a clean manger and stable
For the infant Jesus to rest
Where holy Mary cradles
Her newborn Babe
May I never be parted from
Blessed Mother and Savior Son
And the light and grace of Christmas
Leave me not

Angela Marie Wilhelmi, Redondo Beach, California

Navy Christmas

I grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, in the ’40s and ’50s. My favorite uncle would tell me stories about his Navy service in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Of course my favorite TV show was “Victory at Sea.”

After graduating high school in 1958, my friend and I enlisted in the Navy. We were called to report to New York City on Oct. 9 for final preps. We then boarded a plane for Chicago and boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. A small TV in the front of the plane told the news that Pope Pius XII had died. We were saddened. The Church was without a leader until Oct. 28, when John XXIII was elected.

Navy training was scheduled to end just before Christmas. We would then be given leave to go home before beginning our next phase of Navy life. However, two weeks before my company was to graduate, I came down with pneumonia and was in the base hospital until Dec. 23. I was then released to a holding company where I thought I would be spending Christmas with one or two other sailors. The next morning my Christmas present came. I received word that I could go home.

I boarded a train in Chicago for a 22-hour ride to Newark, my parents thinking I was still in the hospital. The train made stops along the way, and when I got off to stretch, there were townsfolk handing out sandwiches and coffee.

The train arrived in Newark at 8 a.m. I took a taxi home, and when I rang our doorbell, the door was opened with surprised joy. Our family then had a happy trip to Christmas morning Mass.

Joseph T. Murphy, Livingston, New Jersey

Other side of the giving tree

The Christmas that was most meaningful and blessed was way back in the ’80s. I had been out of work from the J&L Steel Co. for the last five years and had been working odd jobs and not getting paid much. I had a wife and five small children, and we were definitely hurting financially. We would eat spaghetti with tomato juice for sauce and have peanut butter crackers for supper. I felt bad for not being able to provide for my family.

It was going to be another bleak Christmas when the phone rang the Saturday night before. It was our priest, Father Ed, and he told me to bring our old station wagon down to the church. He then proceeded to tell me to load up the car with neatly wrapped presents (a lot of them), a new bike and a few boxes full of food. There was a big ham and all the trimmings for a magnificent Christmas dinner. He said a family had anonymously adopted us for Christmas.

When I brought the treasures home, the kids actually squealed with delight and my wife cried. We then proceeded to have the finest Christmas in memory. I was ever so thankful to God, Father Ed and the family that did this. They gave and we received, but the glory went to Almighty God who blessed a destitute family with a very meaningful Christmas!

Michael P. Shearer, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Christmas in the classroom

When I began a profession as an elementary school teacher with a class of second grade children, I emphasized the reality of Christmas being a season and not merely the day of Dec. 25. I introduced them to the lyrics of the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” We clarified meanings of unfamiliar words not part of the students’ vocabulary, such as partridge, pipers piping, lords-a-leaping and maids-a-milking. As an activity to help children focus on the approaching holiday, I distributed to each a paper with 12 squares that they could design with a picture to represent the images of the song. All depicted the pear tree with varied styles of partridges, big-eyed turtle doves and French hens with the word “Avignon” printed above. They had only weeks before learned a simple French dance, “On the Bridge of Avignon,” and an alert student remembered the name of the bridge and added the name coming from the beak of the hens. One boy drew four stick-birds, each holding a megaphone with the words “Hey, Hey” coming from each of the phones. The image that brought endless laughter was a rendition of six-geese-a-laying. There, one child drew six tiny beds, each with a goose lying on its back, feet straight up in the air. When it got to carefully drawn leaping lords, maids milking and pipers in a procession with long flute-like instruments, the completed works were worth more than any store-bought gift; veritable gifts-of-the-Spirit.

Rose Stegman, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Thankful for family

It was Christmas season in 1933, and I, the second youngest of nine children, along with my brothers and sisters, anxiously looked forward to that special day.

We knew that Mom had ordered something from the Sears Roebuck Catalogue, since we met the mail carrier to purchase a money order for Sears.

Several days before Christmas, Mom walked to Ascension Church in Chesterfield, two miles from home, to practice with the choir for the Christmas Mass. We were alone with our father and asked him to show us our Christmas present. He refused! We didn’t give up, and Dad yielded to our pleading. He retrieved a package hidden in the closet and with anxious anticipation, we waited for the surprise.

Our hearts sank when Dad handed each of us a pair of bib overalls! We buried our disappointment and promised to never tell Mom that he let us peak at our only gift.

On Christmas morning, after Mass, Mom presented each of us with a wrapped gift. Yes, a new pair of bib overalls.

We did a great job of acting our joy for our Christmas gift. We thanked Mom and Dad and told them how much we appreciated them.

Money was very scarce or nonexistent in the 1930s and early 1940s, and we realized the sacrifice made by our parents for any gift.

All of my family members are deceased now and I, at 92 years of age, never miss a day of thanking God for his gift that keeps on giving. His love, and the love of our family on the old hill farm in Chesterfield.

Ray L. Ruby, Jonesburg, Missouri

1950 Christmas in uniform

The Christmas of 1950 is one that will forever remain in my memory. I was inducted into the U.S. Army in the fall of 1950 during the Korean War, and was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in the 1901st E.A.B. This was my first time away from home (Flint, Michigan) for any duration, and also the first Christmas my family would experience separation. My army unit relaxed training and posted duty rosters for the entire holiday period. Three-day passes were issued for both holidays and it was my good fortune to receive a pass for the New Year. I called home and informed my family that I would try and fly home for one day. Though I was lonely at Christmas, I looked forward to the following week.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived home and found everything as it would normally be on Christmas Eve. All the trimmings were in place, wrapped presents were under the tree, a wonderful meal had been prepared, etc. My parents and four younger siblings had delayed their Christmas until I could be home and share in the Christmas experience with them. This was truly a family filled with love, and it resulted in a precious Christmas memory that I will treasure forever.

Gene C. Gerard, Flushing, Michigan

Gift of the Eucharist

The story begins as humble beginnings. We attended a Christmas dinner event at our church. We were more casual than most of the people at the party. There were many people wearing suits, ties and fancy dresses. I was feeling a little self-conscious, to be honest. Then at one point the pastor took us aside. At first I wondered if he was going to comment on our clothes or behavior or something not being up to par. No, exactly the opposite. He asked if we would bring up the baby Jesus (statue) at the Christmas Eve Mass. I was thrilled. It was a wonderful evening and very moving for our whole family.

The next year, I wrote a letter when asked to apply to be an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. That Christmas I talked to the pastor as he was walking thru the church on Christmas Eve. I said, “Father, last year we brought up the statue of Baby Jesus. Now this year, you are letting me give people Jesus!” He paused, smiled and nodded a little, and said “Merry Christmas!”

Cathy Wachtel,  Irvine, California

No gifts for Christmas

This time of the year brings a definite ache to my heart as I recall the Christmas of 1958.

That was the year Mom said, “There will be no gifts for Christmas.” I was 10. I took Mom seriously. She always meant what she said. We always had at least three gifts each under our tree to open on Christmas Eve. It was hard to believe there would be none.

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Even so, as we worked through the last days to Christmas, I snooped around looking for Mom’s place to stash gifts. Dusting her bedroom, I looked to the back of the closet; no gifts. Sweeping the wraparound porch, shaking the rug and lining up the endless row of boots, I sneaked a peak in the pantry where Mom kept the milk separator. Nothing! Mom sent me to the basement to bring up potatoes and jars of canning; no gifts down there. As Christmas drew near I continued searching but all in vain. It seemed there would be no gifts for Christmas.

Christmas Eve came and Dad and the boys took the axe from its place in the machine shed and headed out to the pasture in search of a tree. They came back with a beautiful cedar that smelled of the outdoors. Mom pulled out the decorations from somewhere, and us seven children decorated it with a few store-bought and homemade decorations. No matter no gifts, the tree was beautiful.

Caught up in the excitement of the holy day coming, Mom started her magic in the kitchen. There would still be the usual turkey and dressing, baked cinnamon and dinner rolls, lots of mashed potatoes and gravy, and of course a trio of pies — pumpkin, apple and Mom’s favorite, pecan. And of course, Christmas Eve would not be Christmas Eve without soup and crackers.

I knew the most important part of Christmas was the tradition of attending Midnight Mass. On Christmas Eve as far back as my memory could reach my parents allowed all of us to stay up late so we could go to Midnight Mass. There was something very mystical about leaving the house in the dark of night to go to church, where the choir would sing the beautiful Christmas carols and hymns.

Back home, warm and welcoming, the Christmas tree glowing in the darkened living room, I and my brothers and sisters were off to bed. I was too tired to think of the morning with no gifts.

Slowly awakening to the brilliant light of a snow-covered, sun-shining world, I realized with a tingle it was Christmas morning. But then my thoughts shrank as I remembered there would be no gifts. Mom called up the stairs for all of us to get dressed and to come right down as breakfast would be ready soon. Arriving downstairs, what did we see? The most beautiful table ready for all to gather round. Mom and Dad had worked together to set the table with Mom’s best linens and glassware. Every place was beautiful with every fork, knife and spoon carefully placed. In the middle of the table was Mom’s largest platter of cinnamon rolls and right beside it was a pitcher of milk. At every place setting was an orange. We never had oranges. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

And then, as we gathered to say our meal blessing and as we pulled out our chairs, I heard myself gasp in surprise. On each and every chair was one gift, a pen knife for the brothers, a small doll for baby sister and a tractor for little brother. My gift was the most special of all. It was a jewelry box, and when you opened the lid it played a delightful song and a ballerina twirled to the music. There were no gifts under the tree, but there were these gifts that had somehow arrived in time for Christmas morning.

And so our family spent the feast of all feasts remembering the birth of Jesus, eating, playing cards and board games and turning to our one gift to admire and think what a beautiful Christmas Day this was. Our parents had made for us a wonderful memory. This was perhaps the best Christmas of all.

Not a Christmas goes by that I don’t think of that most special Christmas, when I learned that gifts are more special if they are not expected.

Carol Murphy, Crete, Nebraska

Christmas at the farmhouse

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The sleepy cornfields beneath the cold moon,
Frozen mud and chalky gravel, crunching
Under “special occasion” shoes.

The squeak of the screen door —
Sparing the doorbell a weary night, and
The curly cord of the rotary dial, dangling
To the linoleum floors.

The glazed ham, baking in the oven,
Potluck covering the long, “last-supper” table,
Mismatched chairs pressed tight against each other —
Last to sit gets the stool.

The cherub portrait fastened to the wood-paneled walls, and
Three-foot-tall Jesus sitting on a side table
His heart blazing out of His chest.

Once, I tried counting the pink-pig knickknacks in the china cabinet,
Near the lovely couch always covered in floral bed sheets —
Take a seat in front of the one TV with only five channels,
Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye on endless rerun.

Down the dark hall — the room with the file cabinet
Stocked with riches — Little Debbie and Hostess cakes,
Two spare bedrooms with the deer-antler lamps and granny-square blankets, and
The bathroom with the door that never locked — “be quick about your business.”

Unskilled hands of children,
Clangoring on the sitting-room organ,
Next to the closet that never opened —
“Snooping is not cute.”

Mothers around the sink, dirtying clean plates, washing dirty plates,
Fathers huddled at one end of the table, talking deer season,
Grandparents, hand-in-hand, listening from the enclosed-patio porch swing.

The fifty of us,
Gathering around the tree draped in tinsel,
A fortress of gifts guarding the fragile ornaments —

Carols before presents —
“Your singing is a prayer to God.
Sing loud so He can hear you.”

Repeat the sounding joy.
Repeat the sounding joy.
Repeat the sounding joy.

Lauren Hawk, Ballwin, Missouri

A Christmas prayer

Come, O Infant Jesus
into our hearts
your crib to make,
as angels sing
’mid sounds of bleats and brays,
and Wise Men come
to visit from afar.

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Hear our prayer
as Mary watches over you
and Joseph stands
— a father proud —
in the light
of a shining star.

Norman Des Marais, Lone Tree, Colorado

Heritage traditions

Christmas Eve Day, we fast before supper, as a grandchild reads the Nativity story.

My father, a Slovene, and my mother, a Croat, observe a meatless meal. Fish is served.

For my husband, a Slovak, we eat a small piece of garlic followed by a piece of unconsecrated host dipped in honey, signifying there was darkness in the world, and light and love enter our hearts. Slovak Bobalky, bread balls coated with honey and poppy seed, is a real treat. The entire evening is spent at table. Then off to Mass.

Dorothy J. Myosky, Amherst, Ohio

The simplest gift

On the wall of a school hallway were the requests to Santa from the children. Most asked for expensive gifts. As Sister looked at the requests, she saw a crumpled paper on the wall. It was at the bottom of the display. It was stained and almost out of sight. It read, “I don’t expect anything for Christmas. We don’t have a Christmas tree. My father is in jail. But could my brother and I have a blanket, as we don’t have a bed and sleep on the floor.”

Sister took the request to the pastor, who reached in his pocket and took out a wad of money. Father said, “Go to the store and buy the biggest, warmest comforter that you can find for the boys.” Sister brought the comforter home to the convent, where she carefully wrapped the comforter in Christmas paper. Next, she called the older brother, who wrote the request to her classroom, and presented the gift from Santa. The boy asked if he could go and get his little brother to share this happy moment. Sister told the brothers that Santa had that morning dropped off an early Christmas present for them.

Sister M. Gabrielle Thomas, Mobile, Alabama

An ‘edible’ Christmas tree

It was Mother’s solution for holiday festivities in the midst of the Great Depression when money was scarce.

I was 10 years old, so my younger brothers and I helped mother make the decorations. Freshly popped corn grew into white garlands to hug the tree. Star cookies (vanilla) topped with colored sugar hung beside silver-coated Hershey Kisses.

Handmade presents clustered around the manger scene underneath the tree. Our eyes shone with anticipation for tomorrow, Christmas Day.

A knock on the back door changed everything. It was Carrie, the maid next door. On her day off she often came over to help mother. This time Carrie was crying.

“Oh, Mrs. A. I don’t know what to do. My sister Minnie has no money and her six little children will have no Christmas.”

So Mother called a family council. “What can we do to help Carrie’s sister Minnie and her children to have a Merry Christmas?”

My eight-year-old brother John volunteered, “They can have the paper airplanes I made.” Six-year-old Roy who helped decorate the cookies added, “They can have the cookies.”

Yes, you guessed it. On Christmas Eve, Carrie took our popcorn-decorated tree full of edibles plus the manger set and presents, to Minnie’s house in West Philadelphia.

It was the best Christmas we ever had — more than 80 years ago.

Mary Louise Till, Essex, Connecticut