For 28 years now, Our Sunday Visitor readers have shared their joyful, poignant stories associated with the Nativity of Our Lord. We at OSV hope you enjoy this new selection of recollections of Christmases past and in uniform, as well as Christmas poetry.
We extend to all of our readers and their loved ones our prayers for God’s blessings this Christmas season and throughout 2012.
Christmas in China
From 1947 to 1952 I was a missionary in China and I experienced three kinds of Christmas. Studying the Chinese language in Peking (Beijing) there were no signs of Christmas. No lights, no Christmas shopping. I had to make up and mimeograph my own Christmas cards. There were none on sale.
The next year in my mission in South China, what a difference! On Christmas Eve, devout Catholics from miles away came with sleeping bags and camped in the mission. Next morning they lined up to kowtow (reverently bow) to my pastor and myself as we gave them our blessing. Then we celebrated a glorious Christmas Mass. After Mass we all had a big feast together.
The next year the Chinese Communists overran our mission. We were put under house arrest. No one could come in nor could we leave the mission. Christmas came and only a few brave devout Catholics sneaked into our compound at three or four o’clock in the pitch black morning, tapped on our window and said, “Shen fu, china ni tso Missa.” (“Father, please say Mass for us.”) We would be half expecting them and my pastor would offer Mass and I would hear confessions. That was my third kind of Christmas. But not only on Christmas but practically every Sunday a few faithful Catholics would grope their way into the mission and risk arrest to come to Mass. What a fine example for Catholics everywhere who find it so easy to attend Mass.
— Vincentian Father Walter J. Menig, Philadelphia, Pa.
Her father’s joy
The year my father-in-love died, our family gathered for the candlelight Christmas Eve service at the church he and my mother-in-love had attended. My son and his wife had just learned they were expecting a child and had decided to wait until the first trimester of the pregnancy had passed before sharing the news with our extended family. As we sat in the darkness, the heaviness of my mother-in-love’s grief was palpable, as she struggled to celebrate her first Christmas in more than 60 years without her husband. Moved with compassion for her, my son, in a change of heart, leaned over and whispered in her ear that her seventh great-grandchild was on the way. The impact was electrifying as her tears of sorrow turned to joy and the news spread rapidly throughout the surrounding pews.
The angels heralding the good news of the birth of the Christ Child to the shepherds that Christmas night more than 2,000 years ago became incarnate for us in a deeper way that night. The joy of the anticipation of the birth of our granddaughter dispelled the darkness in our family’s time of grief and directed our attention to the long-awaited Child who dispelled the darkness first in the lives of humble shepherds and ultimately in all our lives. We had a sense of the goodness and mercy of God, the Father, who in the fullness of time for humanity sent his only begotten son, Jesus, and in the fullness of time in our family, most especially in the life of my mother-in-love that following year, our granddaughter and great-granddaughter, Abigail, “her father’s joy.”
— Suzanne Pearson, Rochester, N.Y.
A Christmas goodbye
My mother, Jean Flanigan, was paralyzed by a stroke on Dec. 28, 1979, at the age of 56.
She was bedfast the last two years of her life, lovingly cared for by my father. In early November 2005, she suffered a compression fracture of the left hip. After surgery and painful therapy, she was admitted to a nursing facility run by the Sisters of St. Joseph.
On Thanksgiving Day, I was told by a nurse to prepare myself because my mother was dying and would not be here for the holidays. She was put in a hospice and her condition deteriorated. I spent many precious hours at her bedside praying the Rosary, her favorite prayer with her.
On Christmas Day I had dinner for my family at my house and then prepared to visit my mother. My mother’s room was still and silent. I sat beside her and took her hand, stroking her arm. Both were cold and she was unresponsive. I told her of my love for her, thanking her for being such a good mother to me and my siblings and our families. I softly sang her favorite Christmas carols to her and then I prayed the Rosary for her aloud, hoping she would hear the prayers she loved so well. My head was bowed, my eyes closed when I felt a barely perceptible squeeze on my arm. I looked up and she had opened her eyes. She mouthed the words, “I love you.” It was the last thing she ever said to me.
She died three days later, at midnight on Dec. 28, 2005, 26 years to the day of her stroke. I will never forget that Christmas, and I will be eternally grateful to Our Lord for that special time with my beloved mother.
— Colleen Flanigan Gulish, Aliquippa, Pa.
One of the carolers
One day when I was in grade school, Sister announced that there would be a Christmas program. For weeks the air was electric with anxiety as they wondered who would be picked. Although I have a physical disability, I had hoped I could be given a part on stage, but that wasn’t to be when I noticed that the last place had been filled. I was disappointed, but all I could think was “that God loves me any way.”
However, a week later the sister came and told me to go sing with the carolers (off-stage). I went reluctantly, and to this day I am glad I went. I learned all the Christmas carols, and they have remained a part of my life. Each Christmas I remember that joyous time and remember that God loves me.
— Marjorie Hammargren, St. Paul, Minn.
Gift of vocation
My youth in a peaceful unified rural town in Pennsylvania was disturbed when war and bombing was reported on the few radios people owned. Pearl Harbor was recently bombed. I was 11 years old and many of the young men were called to war, and some never came back.
It was Christmas Day. After Mass and a quiet dinner, I noticed my grandparents appeared somber. They knew relatives in Poland who lived in the war zone. Sad and not understanding wars, I was sent to visit neighbors. My friends were unusually quiet for Christmas Day. After enjoying a snack of hot chocolate and pastry, I departed and went to my parish church and stood in front of the Nativity. Suddenly I felt a comforting, cozy feeling that I must help people when I grow up. Now I truly believe God led me to consecrated life as a Hawthorne Dominican, caring for incurable cancer patients.
— Dominican Sister Mary Martha, Atlanta, Ga.
Christmas in the village
It was Christmas Eve 1940. My 4-year-old brother and I were fast asleep.
In the center of the living room was a gigantic piece of plywood on which was displayed a village surrounded by a set of bright red Lionel trains. Besides the train station were miniature passengers. A miniature post office, houses and a miniature church with its glowing steeple reaching to the star-filled night sky. There was also a bakery from which emanated the sweet aromas of Christmas gingerbread cookies and rum-flavored holiday fruitcakes.
The village was a frenzy of activity as worshippers hurried to midnight Mass. The fire house and police department were both decorated with holiday balsam wreaths and red velvet bows. The church service lasted close to two hours and upon leaving for home, the parishioners greeted each other with the familiar “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year.” Snow flurries had begun to fall making it a perfect night.
Meanwhile, Santa Claus had been working frantically for hours. It really was quite a tedious job to be sure that the trains would operate perfectly.
Six o’clock in the morning was my brother’s and my time to awaken with great expectations! We saw our large Christmas tree decorated with special ornaments and beneath it the gifts Santa had brought us. My brother had received a Flexible Flyer Sled and I had gotten a coach doll carriage with a beautiful doll.
I shall never forget that Christmas. I now reminisce concerning the immense gift of charity that my father had and passed on to me! With nostalgia and tremendous joy, I only hope that I have instilled in my six children, 10 grandchildren, and one great grandchild the true meaning of Christmas and Christ’s Birth!
— Barbara Jean Coleman, Yorktown Heights, N.Y.
At the age of 47, with the Lord’s help, I had finally grown up. I accepted the reality that my marriage was failing. Threatened with imminent divorce, I had taken the bold step of returning to college so I could support my children.
All during Advent I couldn’t manage a snippet of catching the Christmas spirit, the excitement that Jesus, the Lord of the Universe, had lived on the earth as a precious baby in his mother Mary’s arms. This was the first year I had not shopped for Christmas gifts. I had not baked a single Christmas cookie with my children, a tradition continued from my childhood.
It was Christmas morning. As organist for my small Southern Catholic church, I did keyboards for all the Masses and had my final two planned. Then I would just come home and go to bed.
Mass at 11 o’clock was completed. The two song leaders, Virginia and Bill Robertson, had done a beautiful job, singing with all their hearts. Now I could go home and rest. As I was putting away the music, Virginia asked, “Would you come home with us and have eggnog?”
I accepted and drove to their home. This was my first visit at their old Victorian house. In their parlor was the Christmas tree of my dreams, a real live tree, at least 12 feet tall with old-fashioned ornaments. I was enchanted!
After eggnog and cookies, Virginia offered more cookies, “Why don’t you take a few home?” She filled a box with magnificent cookies. I returned home with my treasures, confident that I had something to contribute to Christmas. This would be a new beginning! The Spirit of Christmas had renewed me with hope and energy!
— Janice Jurgensen, Lexington, Ky.
The least of these
I clearly remember that Christmas Eve in 1929 was bitterly cold. The snow was frozen solid and piled high. I was only 8 years old, third oldest in a large family. Everyone, except my father Joseph, had buried themselves under the covers in bed to stay warm and fallen fast asleep.
Joseph was placing gifts for his children under the tree when he heard a thump at the front door. It was a hobo. A wandering, disheveled, frozen and hungry man had seen a light in the window. My father could tell from footprints in the snow that the man had struggled to make it that far and collapsed into in a heap on our doorstep. He was barely conscious. My father did exactly what Jesus and the Good Samaritan would have done. He quickly pulled the man indoors to help him warm up. Then he bathed him, and gave him some nourishment and liquids through the night.
Before leaving early that morning, the grateful man tearfully thanked my father for saving his life. When we awoke on Christmas Day and heard my father’s account of what had happened during that cold winter night, we knew we had received a great gift. Our father had done God’s work on this holiest of days. Eighty-two years later, the memory of my father’s loving act of mercy, showing us the true meaning of Christ’s birth, still burns in my heart.
— Irene Bjorklund, Phoenix, Ariz.
Coming full circle
My brother was 12 and I was 9 back in December 1949. We already had our supper and decided to go out and play in the new falling snow. There were about 2 to 3 inches on the ground and we played for a while and then decided to go about two blocks from home to see the outdoor Nativity scene located on a large piece of property on our main street. The display was a beautiful re-creation of the nativity with background structures of Bethlehem, live animals around the crèche, and statues of Mary and Joseph, etc. The 3 inches of snow made for a peaceful, pure and warm feeling. There were beautiful carols being played which also lent to the atmosphere.
After spending a while, we then went to our nearby church, St. John the Baptist, which at that time would stay open until 10 p.m. We entered from the massive bronze front side door and immediately we were hit with the warmth of the interior and the smell of real wax-burning candles, marble, etc. We were the only ones in church and we sat on the left front near the alcove that displayed the pièta. The snow on our jackets began to melt and now we were glistening with wet drops. The heat for the church came from pipes that were located beneath the pews. The knocking of the pipes was the only sound in the church. As I glanced at the pièta, I realized that we had come full circle in the life of Christ — from the Nativity scene where Jesus is held in his mother’s arms to his death where again he is held in his Mother’s arms.
That evening has been etched in my mind all these years and I am now 71. The Nativity property has for many years now been used as a 20 story senior citizen building and our beloved church no longer has its grammar school which my brother and I attended. I now live about 15 to 20 miles from my old neighborhood and my brother lives in Florida.
— Jack R. Farese, Leonia, N.J.
Santa’s busy elves
During the early 1970s, my husband and I moved with our six children into an older house that was badly in need of repair. At the time I was a stay-at-home mom and my husband was an elementary school teacher. Balancing the budget was always a challenge, especially at Christmastime. We spent many a Christmas Eve night finishing do-it-yourself projects that we had hidden away from curious eyes.
One fall we tore out the old worn carpet from our huge family room, revealing a cement floor. The floor we painted to save the expense of new carpeting.
That Christmas we bought basketballs for the older boys and a yard-sale rocking horse for the 5-year-old boy, Tony. As soon as they were all asleep on Christmas Eve, we brought out the rocking horse and gave it a new coat of black paint. We were so happy with how nice it looked, shiny and new-looking.
After a few hours of sleep, we were awakened by — bang, bang! It was the sound of the new basketballs bouncing on the cement floor. Dragging ourselves out of bed, we were greeted by the sight of Tony happily riding his “new” horse. He was so excited, calling out “Ride ’em cowboy!”
Soon it was time for breakfast and to get ready for Mass at St. Mary’s Church. Cowboy Tony was having trouble dismounting his horse. Helping him off, we both exclaimed “Oh no!” The black paint hadn’t fully dried, and Tony was now wearing black pajama bottoms! He couldn’t understand how Santa’s elves had not finished their job. We often reminisce about our experiences with past Christmases and marvel at the fact that our Guardian Angels helped us through those exciting and memorable times.
— Patricia Rubalcaba, Springerville, Ariz.
Adveniat Regnum Tuum (Thy Kingdom Come)
Anxiety confronts us at this busy time of year.
Yet deep within, a longing for a simple spirit here.
Upon the dinner table set, four candles tower there
With hardened wax along their sides in glistened purple wear.
In much anticipation in the herald of their flame.
A King, not fitly welcomed, but a King comes just the same.
God’s love is unconditional, his way is innocent.
As comes that night in Bethlehem, fulfilling this advent.
Now just a babe in arms, may God protect him at this time.
Until the day we justify to kill him in his prime.
But is there room to welcome him within our poor control,
The blindness of our intellect, the darkness in our soul.
Too long we’ve been accustomed to the pleasures of our pride,
And rarely is there sorrow for the sins we hide inside.
We’ve all been lost since Adam’s sin, and far from grace, to roam,
But through his Son, his perfect plan, God brings all mankind home.
There is no other hope, far as this woeful world may tell.
Oh come now long awaited Savior, come Emmanuel.
May all desires turn to You, and those, indifferent, cease.
Bring us your hope, your love, your joy, thou Prince of perfect peace.
— Dan Winer, Nova, Ohio
God created the earth
And the morning stars shouted for joy
He made the sun, moon and all the stars
He knows the stars by name
Ancient peoples worshipped the stars
Stars worshipped Joseph in a dream
Men built a tower toward the stars
God was grieved because of sin
I am the Lord your God
You shall not have strange gods before Me
Obey Me, worship Me
And I will send my Son to set you free
A shining star announced his birth
From the East Magi found the star
The image of the invisible God was born
In a stable beneath the stars
God is well-pleased with his Son
He is Wonderful, Counselor, God with us
In his right hand are seven stars
The Word Who dwelt among us
Children of God, shine like stars in the world
You are the salt of the earth
Be a lamp in a dark place til the morning star rises
Praise God for Jesus’ Birth
— Kasandra Barker, Hot Springs, Ariz.
The Bliss of Christmas
It was a night like other nights,
If man the signs and sights ignored.
But hist’ry changed that Christmas night,
Beginning the first Year of the Lord.
One Star beamed brightest in the sky
As an astral angel to light the way
For shepherds nigh and three Magi
To where, with Mary, the Christ-Child lay.
Since then, all men have come to know
That God so loved us all that he
Took on our human nature so
We all could share his divinity.
Christmas, then, is a time to cheer
And thank the Lord for what he’s done
To bless our lives and make it clear
he loves us, each and every one.
— Deacon Harold L. Bates, New Milford, N.J.
In the still of a long-ago night
In a far-away town
At the hour appointed,
Foretold in ancient promise
And cried “I am.”
In that moment did all creation bow?
Did the universe halt?
The only sway he experienced:
Within the warm arms of his young mother;
Under the watchful eyes of his guardian father.
Jesus of Nazareth — Savior
Son of God — Son of Man
I give thanks
Would your mother let me hold you?
— Bretta Ribbing, Manchester, Mo.
The Joy Life Brings Through Others
Mary, our Mother, the fountain of our joy,
Brought hope for every man, woman, girl and boy.
It is because of Mary’s humble “yes,”
The joy of the human race is blessed.
Jesus, God’s only begotten Son,
Gives us the joy of eternal life that his redemption won.
The Holy Spirit brings joy and love to the heart,
With faithful parent, priests and sisters doing their part.
— Catherine Balk, Waucoma, Iowa
Picture our earth as time began,
Painted with love by God’s Holy hand.
Let their be light,
A star so bright
God’s Son is born,
On Christmas morn.
Feel his precious love for all,
Erasing our first parents fall.
Church bells ring,
So many blessings Christmas brings.
I recall HOLY as the best Christmas Memory of all.
— Mary P. Marshall, Bridgeton, Mo.
Christmas in Uniform
I was an Army lieutenant stationed in Germany in 1957, and wondering where to spend my first Christmas away from home. While doing my banking, I saw a travel ad that said “See Rome This Christmas.” I liked what I was reading. Its emphasis was on the Vatican but it also included a trip to the Isle of Capri. I convinced myself to sign up.
On Dec. 23, I was on leave and off to Rome. After checking into a pensione, I was off to the Vatican. I enjoyed seeing the Sistine Chapel. Upon the advise of the pensione clerk, I attended Midnight Mass at a church in the diplomatic section of Rome. It was a missa recitata, where the priest says the entire Mass out loud in Latin and those in attendance reply to his prayers in Latin. When Mass ended, I went out to the vestibule and walked to each diplomatic group exchanging Christmas greetings with them.
On Christmas Day, I saw Pope Pius XII at the Vatican giving his Christmas blessing to everyone. I also had a tour of the catacombs conducted in English by an Irish priest.
The next day, it was off to Sorrento. The following day, we left for Capri. It was a rainy day, but we saw enough to understand what makes Capri such a tourist attraction.
On the way back to Rome, we stopped to view the ruins of Pompeii, that was buried in lava from an eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
When I returned to Germany, I wondered if I would ever have another Christmas like this. So far, I haven’t — but you never know.
— Charles Carney, Stanhope, N.J.
Christmas was on Sunday that year, decades ago, as it will be this year. My husband was stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base and we lived a half hour away in Rapid City, S.D. He was a chaplain’s assistant and I helped out as chapel organist. I don’t recall just how many services were scheduled that cold Christmas Eve as we packed up two young children, sleeping bags, pillows and pajamas for a 24-hour marathon of Christmas services. Our closest relatives were 600 miles away, and who can you ask to watch your children on Christmas Eve?
But a dear friend who lived close to the base volunteered to take our little ones home with her after an 8 p.m. candlelight service. Later, after playing for a 10 p.m. service and Midnight Mass, I helped my husband clean up and prepare the chapel for the next morning. Our friends had left their door open and we found a cozy bed on the floor where we collapsed for about four hours of sleep.
We were awakened at 6 a.m. with kitchen noises and the smell of coffee brewing. Our hostess had set the table for a festive Christmas morning breakfast complete with a many layered cake alternating green and red frosting.
In our 22 years in the military we spent many holidays far from home and family, but the memories are special and none more than that gift of hospitality so many years ago.
— Joyce Larson, Phoenix, Ariz.