Unwrap the joy of Christmas

For nearly four decades, Our Sunday Visitor has been proud to share the stories of our readers’ most memorable Christmases — tales that can evoke laughter or tears and fill us with nostalgia for days gone by. At the heart of all these stories is Christ himself, who for nearly 2,000 years has given us reason to celebrate. We hope you enjoy this year’s Christmas memories and poems. Have a very blessed Christmas.

A Christmas Eve fire

Ladies of the Altar Society and a few altar boys sent by their mothers to help had just finished decorating the old brick church for Christmas and were admiring the lights and poinsettias. The spice of the three Norway spruce trees meant that the holy season had begun; they could even smell the fire that would warm them after they walked home on that cold Christmas Eve in 1954. Wait! Fire?

The tree on the side altar to the Blessed Virgin was smoldering. Father Egan, the pastoral vicar of Our Lady of Sorrows in Corona, Queens, sent everyone out while Isabella Fusco ran to the rectory to call the fire department. Three of the boys slipped back in through the main doors of the church and stood in the shadows under the choir loft to watch the action. 

The firemen appeared in minutes, but the tree was in flames by that time. The priest ushered the men in through the side door on the opposite end of the transept from the blaze. The altar boys witnessed a display of faith and reverence that seems ludicrous by today’s standards.

Each of the firefighters, all of whom were Irish Catholics, tipped his helmet as he rushed by Father Egan. Then, with axes in hand, hoses and other paraphernalia draped over their backs, they all genuflected as the passed the main altar on their way to the fire.

The genuflections were hurried and less than artful, but the altar boys weren’t surprised that these men would take time even for that under the circumstances. That was how one did things in the old Church. God lived in the tabernacle, and a Catholic acknowledged that fact by bending his or her knee to him. God didn’t flee the altar just because a fire was threatening his home. 

Damage to Our Lady of Sorrows was minimal, and I tell the story now for a laugh. That way of life may be gone, but the reverence on display then still lives in our hearts. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, when bells are ringing and candles glowing, and people are receiving the Eucharist with bows, always reminds me that Catholics do love God as much now as they did a half-century ago. They just have different ways of expressing their love.

Paul A. Barra, Reidville, South Carolina

Guardian angel on Christmas Eve

On Christmas Eve in 1972, my 2-year-old son, Jimmy, was in the living room playing with his toy train. His dad and a friend were in the kitchen talking. I left out the front door to go to Christmas Eve Mass at St. Joachim’s Church (which is now closed) half a block down on the opposite side of the street. It was a cold and snowy night.

After singing the beautiful Christmas songs and after the Mass had started, one of the ushers who was standing near the door came up to me with my son in his arms. He said the baby was crying at the front door for his mommy. I walked him home, where his dad was frantic, as he did not hear Jimmy go out the front door. Somehow my 2-year-old opened the front door and went out.

Jimmy was wearing blue thermal pajamas with padded feet. Thank goodness, as the ground was very cold and snow covered. It was amazing that he walked to the church, like an angel was guiding him. He could have walked up the road and gotten lost or fallen and froze, but he must have known I went to the church — or an angel took him there. Luckily no cars came by when he walked across the street. It was like the Baby Jesus was sent to the church for Christmas Eve.

Sonia McCarthy, Pittsburgh
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Miracle of Christ’s birth

                                            *
                                      Before
                                 God created
                               time, He chose
                          the moment when He
                      would send His Son Jesus
                  to become one of us — to walk
                among us and save us. I pray that
            all of your moments will be blessed by
           the full wonder of that miracle, and the
        joy of a close personal relationship with Him.
    May our Lord’s grace be with you and yours now
                                          and
                                        always

Dianne Spotts, Hatfield, Pennsylvania

Memories around the Nativity

Our family traditions are indelible in my mind, as I am sure they are for my brothers and sisters. One memory is of a yearly tradition. There were seven of us, plus Mom and Dad — five boys and two girls. Like many American families, we had the beautiful Christmas tree in the exact same spot every year. We had seven stockings hanging from the chimney “with care.” Of course, you could feel the anticipation for Christmas in the atmosphere. We were your typical, loving, fighting, happy and fun family. Mom and Dad had one important rule, which we knew so well. When we rushed down on Christmas morning, we would go right to the family Nativity scene on our hutch cabinet and say some special prayers that we had to the Baby Jesus. Then we could look and take things out of our Christmas stocking (books, cards, games and always a stuffed toy). And while we could see the items under the tree (because Santa had his hands full with gifts for seven kids, they were never wrapped) we could not play with them until after Mass. After Mass we would launch into our gifts, stopping occasionally when Mom called us to say a prayer or in the afternoon when we would walk down (weather permitting) to make a visit at the church Nativity. Christmas is full of so many memories, all of them happy, and all of them around the Nativity.

Joann Fantina, Bernardsville, New Jersey

ornaments

Lesson taught by children

My Christmas memory is of last year’s Christmas Eve Mass. I wanted to take my three kids to Mass before heading to a family celebration. As my oldest was 8 years old at the time and my twins 6, I knew Midnight Mass was out of the question, but I found a nearby church that offered an earlier Mass. Now, my trio in the past have not always behaved as I would like them to at Mass, so I thought I’d better get there early so I could get good seats near an exit (just in case). I arrived about half an hour before Mass, and there wasn’t an open seat in the Church! I found a corner in the back and tried to stay calm and keep them occupied. As the minutes ticked by, I grew more anxious, and thoughts of my kids causing a scene raced through my head. I had been down this road before, and I thought that with so many people in the church it was only a matter of time before everyone noticed my kids acting up. With five minutes to go to the start of Mass, I blurted out, “C’mon, let’s go! There are no seats, and we can’t stand the whole time!” My kids stared at me and said, “Go? Why? Sit on the floor if you have to! It’s Jesus’ birthday; we’re staying!” I was shocked. And then it hit me: They knew why they were there. I realized the lesson I was given, and it was the best present I ever could have asked for.

Paul Vicari, Location withheld

‘I will never turn him away!’

It is during this holy season when I recall the time I was teaching a class of second-graders at St. Gabriel’s Parish, a Catholic grade school in Chicago. As the Christmas season began, we had studied the beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel. Everyone in the class wanted to be in our play. We started our planning. First, the children elected the girl who would be the Blessed Virgin Mary and the boy who would be St. Joseph. We then began selecting our cast of characters, with volunteers for the walkers to travel to Bethlehem to register for Caesar Augustus, the shepherds, the three kings and their family members, and lastly the innkeeper. Without our props or costumes, we began our first rehearsal.

When Mary and Joseph arrived at the inn and asked for a room, a surprise happened. The little innkeeper looked serious. He looked at me and cried out loud, “I can’t be the innkeeper who turns them away! I love Jesus. I’ll always love him. I will never turn him away!”

The class cheered. The rehearsal didn’t continue until the next day.

Did the little innkeeper know that Jesus was there at the Inn, living in Mary’s womb?

Rosemary Easley, Catonsville, Maryland

A lesson of forgiveness

In 1960, our parish received a new pastor, Father Joseph Mavsar. He was from Yugoslavia and had been in Montana a little more than 10 years. He was an energetic, joyful and faith-filled person. As he lived with us longer, we learned some of his story. His family had owned a farm and butcher business; his father was a leader in the community. As World War II progressed in Europe, the Communists began their takeover in central Europe. Father Mavsar was attending the seminary in 1942 when his father was betrayed to the Communists. During a raid on the family home, Father Mavsar’s parents, his sister and five of his brothers were killed. While the buildings were still burning, a neighbor was taking their machinery back to his own farm. It turned out that this neighbor had betrayed the family. Twenty-five years later, at Midnight Mass in 1967, Father Mavsar related in his homily how he had forgiven this neighbor. The congregation was so quiet! Father Mavsar’s example of forgiveness and his sharing it that night stamped a very strong impression on my 18-year-old soul. As we left Mass, big snowflakes were falling straight down, symbolic of the peace that Father assured us comes with forgiveness. When I mention this memory to other parishioners, it’s surprising how many of us share this same strong memory from 50 years ago.

MaryEllen Schnur, Townsend, Montana

The Incarnation

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The winter night is cool and bright
As shepherds gather around the fire,
Keeping their sheep in full sight
Exchanging thoughts and desires.
Suddenly from the starry sky
Sweetest music fills the air, Causing the shepherds to cry
One to the other with care.
What is this music we hear
Coming from the starry sky?
Angels chanting: Peace! Fear not!
Hear this good news,
In Bethlehem you will find
A baby wrapped in swaddling cloths
And lying in a manger bed.
Jesus! The Savior of the world.
Love incarnate from Virgin Mary’s womb.

Father Augustine J. Moore, Orange Beach, Alabama

Community spirit during the Depression

The Depression was difficult for everyone, but especially for children at Christmastime. Yet, there was a spirit of helping each other. Neighbors would come together on our street to trade off old toys their children had outgrown. Because the 30 children on our block played with each other, many of the toys were seen as belonging to their friends. Fathers renewed toys by repainting dolls while the mothers provided new clothes for the dolls and rearranged the dolls’ hair. Toys began to disappear about a month before Christmas, with the many children wondering what happened. I remember well as a very small boy having a red three-wheel bike.

About four weeks before Christmas, I complained to my parents that the little red bike I loved so much was now gone. I told them that someone must have stolen my bike. My parents’ reply was simply that I would have my bike if I would have taken care of it and placed it where it belonged when I was finished riding it. There was no sympathy.

My family celebrated Christmas down the street with my aunt and uncle and their family. My cousin, Joe, was a little younger than I but much smaller. On Christmas Day as we began to open the few gifts under the tree after our Christmas meal, I told my cousin, “Joe, you got a bike for Christmas just like the one I had, but mine was red, and yours is green!” Our parents looked at each other with an understanding smile. It was another case where parents during the Depression exchanged the toys of the children for a very Merry Christmas during financially hard times.

Father Harold H. Voelker, St. Louis

Christmas blessings in prison

In April 2007 Father Anthony Prosen died unexpectedly. He had been the priest here at Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana for many years. Of his many talents, one that I greatly appreciated was his ability to sing, including chant. He was one of the few priests I had heard chant the Birth Proclamation of the Lord sometimes included at Midnight Mass.

After his death, neither the deacon or the new priest, Father Joseph Pesola, felt comfortable singing or chanting so the responsibility of leading the Mass in song fell to me. A few weeks before Christmas, Father Joe asked if I would be willing to chant the Birth Proclamation. I was not sure if I could do it — let alone chant it as well as Fr. Prosen — but I agreed.

I managed to chant it with only a few minor mistakes that only I probably noticed. After the Mass, I had several of my fellow inmates compliment and thank me for doing it, and I felt that the spirit of Father Prosen assisted me through chanting it.

I have had the opportunity to chant the Birth Proclamation of the Lord several times these past 10 years, but the first time so soon after Father Prosen’s death was the most special, and it still remains a cherished Christmas memory for me here in prison.

Fred Loux, Pendleton, Indiana
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In honor of Blessed Mary, Mother of Our Savior

I’ve seen a Lovely Lady,
Heavenly smile on her face
Carrying a small child
With joy and full of grace.
Her mannerisms tell me
There’s something special here,
A holiness and reverence
So beautiful and rare.
Does she not truly, happily
Walk with holy pride
Carrying Him whose Holiness
Is spread the world wide?
Adore Jesus Christ our Savior
Who came on Christmas Day.
Honor His holy Mother
In a warm and joyful way.

Ed Schnaubelt, China, Michigan

A post-traumatic Christmas

I experienced a life-changing event in mid-December 1999. As I was taking down boxes of Christmas decorations from my garage attic, I fell from to the concrete floor and suffered a traumatic brain injury.

My healing progressed better than expected until the Christmas season of 2000 arrived. To my dismay, I experienced an aversion to Christmas. I did not care to celebrate Christmas, which prior to my injury was my most favorite holiday and season. I met with my neuropsychiatrist, and she shared with me that I was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. She explained that because I had my accident while I was gathering Christmas decorations, I subconsciously associated the Christmas season with my injury. 

I sadly had an irrational aversion to each Christmas season that followed until Christmas of 2005. That year my eldest daughter was a few weeks shy of giving birth to my first grandchild, a boy. I was elated about the baby’s impending birth, and best of all, to my great surprise, I anticipated with much joy the arrival of Christmas. Christmas became even more special because my daughter, like the Blessed Mother, carried a baby boy in her womb. Not only did I joyfully anticipate my grandson’s birth, but I also appreciated in a special way the anticipation that Joseph and Mary experienced on the first Christmas.

Because of God’s mercy and grace, the joy of Christmas was restored to me. I experienced an emotional and a spiritual healing, and I always will remember that blessed, post-traumatic Christmas of 2005. 

Clyde Archibeque, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Christmas delivery

This Christmas story goes back about 65 years. A Christmas does not go by without me thinking of the true holiday spirit of my parents.

Our farm was dissected by Highway 20 (the Interstate 80 of its day), which wound through the countryside and rural towns of Iowa. My parents had four young children at the time. On a Christmas morning while we children were in the living room playing with our newly opened presents, my mother in the kitchen, preparing the usual festive dinner, happened to look out the window. She shouted to my dad: “A car coming around the bend flipped over and over!” It ended up in a ditch in our field. My dad rushed out of the house and found the man, about his age, lying alongside the demolished car. (He miraculously survived but with cuts and bruises.) After an ambulance arrived and took the man to the hospital, dad got his tractor and pulled the car into our farm yard. He came into the hose and told my mother that the car’s trunk was filled with all the man’s Christmas presents for his family. He told my mother he would be back later. Evidently, Dad found the man’s address in the car, discovering that he lived 20 miles away. Dad took the opportunity to be Santa twice that Christmas.

Father Kenneth C. Stecher, Waterloo, Iowa

Baby in a stable

Christmas is more than
A “to-from” label
Or a turkey on the table;
It’s a baby in a stable
Lying in a manger.
Who to the world
Would be no stranger.

Joe Clark, Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania
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Christ at Christmas

May the light of Christ
Make bright my path.
To be with me this Christmas
Wherever I’m at.
Through sorrows and joys,
May Christ’s light be near.
So with Jesus close by,
I will have nothing to fear.

Catherine L. Balk, Waucoma, Iowa

Gift-giving ‘visitors’

One of my fondest memories was a Christmas Eve meal at the home of my grandparents. Family would join together for this evening meal. This was in the days of fasting on Christmas Eve. The meal started with potato soup, and as we were about to finish this course of the meal, my grandmother would claim to hear the sound of a bell, which no one else heard with all the visiting. She would go out into the hallway and come back with a very small Christmas tree that was decorated and was set in the middle of the table. The next course of the meal was baked fish surrounded by vegetables on a beautiful, large platter — large, at least, large to a 5-year-old. Just before dessert, my grandfather would hear a knock at the back door. He would go to check and come back with a basket of fruit, small cookies and cakes, which became part of our meal. He told the story that there were three visitors who wanted hay and grain for their camels and offered the basket of fruit and sweets as a payment. Later, an older relative would read the Christmas story before we opened a few gifts.

Margaret Wetter, Norton, Kansas
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First Christmas gift

On this Christmas Eve,
Step out into the night.
Feel the silence.
Listen! Not a sound, Only silence.
Look up. Look up.
And see the blackness,
Pierced by the wonder
Of countless stars ...
The wonder and majesty of it all!
Search the night sky ... search.
Can you find the Star of the East?
And, in the silence, pause, and wonder ...
Can this be how it was?
Can it be that in the silence of a wondrous night,
That God delivered His only son,
His Gift of hope and Mercy, and love?
Can this be?
The wonder of it all ...
Then, in the stillness of this night, let us,
With the angels, Rejoice! Alleluia!
God became man, on a wondrous,
Star filled night.

Margaret Kenehan, Glendale, Wisconsin