Two contrasting Christmas experiences with extended Mexican-American families have left me wondering how American Catholics might more satisfactorily celebrate our most popular feast day. One of the two involved a much acculturated family. The other took place in a home where traditions are vividly renewed.

Before I tell the stories, a couple of notes are in order. First, both families are Catholic, or at least predominantly so. I think the majority of people in both cases attended Christmas Mass the year I was with them, although it is likely that some did not and that perhaps a few attended services at a non-Catholic church. Second, both families treated me kindly; indeed, they went out of their way to make me, a non-Mexican-American priest-friend, feel at home.

After Christmas dinner about five years ago, the acculturated family moved to the living room where a mound of presents was stacked around the Christmas tree. Most Americans are all too familiar with what came next so there is no need to review it in detail. Many gifts were dispensed, each opened by the beneficiary with feigned or real anticipation and the benefactor duly thanked before the next present was passed along.

I received a couple of small gifts, but I left the house after a half hour or so as I realized that the procedure was likely to take as much time as Midnight Mass. (We priests are graciously excused when we have other ''stops'' to make.)

Two Christmas ago, I hadn't planned to stay long at the house of the second family of this tale. I was invited after I celebrated the 8:30 Christmas Eve Spanish Mass. Having another Mass in the morning, I thought I would just eat a tamale, the traditional Mexican Christmas fare, and return to the rectory.

When I arrived at the home a block from the church, about 30 people had already gathered. There were a number of people in the parlor — some about to watch A Christmas Story and others visiting with one another. I said a few ''hellos'' and sat down by the television until I was called to the dining room for refreshments. About four men were already there eating and a couple drinking as they talked.

Extraordinary Ritual

The conversation at the table was friendly but hardly personal. One fellow asked me if I had ever seen such a family gathering before. Understanding him to mean an extended family coming together on Christmas Eve, I answered, ''Yes.'' He probably had in mind, however, the extraordinary ritual that was about to begin. It was to be, for me at least, a unique experience — a celebration of faith transcending personal satisfaction to keep a family united to God as well as to one another.

About 11 p.m., the cancioneros (songbooks) were passed around and the television turned off. I left the dining table for the large circle that was forming in the parlor. I was telling myself that I would sing a few villancicos (Mexican Christmas carols) and perhaps, before leaving, say the rosary that someone mentioned was coming. I still wanted to get seven hours of sleep before the morning Mass.

Most everyone took a turn leading the rosary. After the matriarch made the introduction and said the first ''Our Father,'' a lit candle was passed around the room. The person holding it recited the Gospel part of the ''Hail Mary,'' and everyone responded with the plea for intercession. We were mostly praying in Spanish; however, one or two adults as well as some children, used English in leading the prayers.

As each prayer was completed, the leader passed the candle to the next person in the circle. A few people remained in the dining room, choosing not to participate in the rosary. Perhaps they had joined an evangelical church and thought the ''Hail Mary'' too overtly Catholic. Or maybe they just did not care to pray in public.

Of course, we said the ''Joyful Mysteries,'' beginning with the angel's announcement to Mary that she would be the mother of God and ending with Mary and Joseph finding Jesus in the Temple discussing the Scriptures with scholars. We were engaged in a family experience with focus on the Holy Family.

Once the rosary was completed, I was enticed to stay for the singing of the ''Posada'' (inn) verses, a lovely ballad chanted in parts on each of the nine days before Christmas. Tears always come to my eyes as I contemplate how the innkeeper invites the blessed couple to enter his posada as soon as he realizes that the woman is Mary of Nazareth, the Reina del cielo (queen of heaven). All people are good-hearted — I am inclined to admit on such occasions — when they are shown the true worth of others.

The family actually dramatized the posada. A number of the children put on costumes — Mary, Joseph, an angel and shepherds — and more than half of the group, now around 50 people, went outside the house to sing the parts of Mary and Joseph seeking hospitality.

Meanwhile, the others stayed inside to chant the responses of the innkeeper. There was no sense of hurrying to ''get through'' the seven verses and responses. Indeed, before the first verse and after every other response, we people outside walked in a candle light procession around the driveway and front of the house.

Adding to the realism of the drama, the air was cold enough so that we could see our breath vaporize. As we marched in procession, I noticed the opened doors of the Presbyterian Church across the street. There was probably a service of considerable profundity and beauty going on inside. But I felt fortunate to be where I was, recalling the birth of Christ with a family that had likely been performing the ritual for generations, if not centuries.

When we finished the posada, I was saying ''buenas noches'' (good night) to my hosts, but they asked if I would stay for the acostada del niño (laying down of the child). By this time it was close to midnight. I had given up on an early rest and willingly assented to their request. Certainly, the sacrifice of a little sleep produced a handsome dividend in terms of spiritual uplifting.

The Nacimiento

After singing more villancicos, two of the children carried a doll of the Christ-child to every person present. All venerated him by kissing His image. No one — not even those who did not participate in the rosary — seemed to think that it was an odd or idolatrous practice. The almost life-size image was then placed in the manger with the statuettes of the nacimiento (crèche).

The ritual was still not over. Now, just about midnight, we ended the spiritual part of the celebration by exchanging embraces and wishing each other a Feliz Navidad (Merry Christmas). It was a universal ''kiss of peace'' which reminded me of my years in Malaysia as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1970s.

On the feast ending the month of Muslim fasting, Malays greet one another with a hug and ask forgiveness for any offenses they may have inflicted on the other during the past year. The sign of peace at Mass and the embrace that we were making at midnight on Christmas Eve have the same intention of reconciliation even if we do not use the word.

At this point I finally left the celebration. The family in the house were ready to enjoy more tamales, buñuelos (fried dough coated with honey) and other delights. They had been re-solidified in love by recalling in various ways the coming of the Savior among them. Certainly, there was no need to say ''grace.'' Their prayer of thankfulness had been more than amply made. I seemed to float back to the rectory as I had just witnessed the loveliest demonstration in my life of living faith celebrated in a home.

Many parents worry that their children are turning into rank materialists as they watch them tear into presents around the Christmas tree. With reports that young adults have become increasingly narcissistic, there is reason to modify this custom.

Some families are pursuing alternative gifts such as donating a farm animal in the name of a loved one. Others are limiting gift-giving either by dollar amount or by each person giving a gift to only one other family member. Perhaps these families, like the not-so-acculturated Mexican-American family just chronicled, might consider renewing old customs and beginning new ones as they gather for Christmas.

Traditions of singing carols, praying the family rosary, and dramatizing the Gospel story are not so remote from common practice as to be irretrievable. If families would think about it, they probably would agree that such ritual, along with attending Mass together and saying grace before the Christmas meal, is only fitting recognition for the birth of our salvation.

© Carmen Mele, O.P.