It’s interesting to note that most of the stories around Christmas delve into the meaning of a purposeful life. It is Christmas that brings that introspection to mind. Perhaps it’s the fact that Christmas produces so many memories that we can hear those Christmas stories again and again and, in part, relive those special moments.
Even though the Christmases of my childhood seem to merge together, I can remember as a boy how I looked forward to our extended families coming together to celebrate Christmas. My mother was the oldest of her family so my home became the center of family holidays. We would celebrate some of the traditions of our Polish heritage but they were, of course, somewhat Americanized.
My mother would prepare a dinner for some 25 to 30 relatives and friends who would gather – a real task in our two-story, wooden frame house. But before we sat down to eat, we broke oplatki – a strip of wafer given to each family member. The oldest person started the process by going down the line to each family member, exchanging a piece of each other’s wafer. Before consuming it, we would wish each other a Merry Christmas and blessings for the coming year. If there were a need to be forgiven for some hurtful language or action, the individual would ask forgiveness from the person he or she had wronged.
You can see how the tradition mimicked the Eucharist, the gift of our Lord to us, but the Eucharist also demands that we prepare ourselves through a desire to eliminate any ill feelings or bitterness toward our brothers and sisters. Remember, before you place your sacrifice before the altar, go first to your brother and sister seeking forgiveness. The heart must be prepared to give and receive love.
At the dinner someone usually offered thanks to God and the kids would fight over who would receive the largest portion of the dessert. The children were seated at the children’s table (the kids’ corner) and I especially remember the first Christmas that I was invited to sit at the adults’ table. I had finally arrived.
Presents were distributed sometimes during a surprise visit from Santa. Santa was usually played by one of my uncles who needed a couple of pillows for padding around his waist; the fake beard left a lot to be desired. The rationale for the kids was that this was Santa’s helper, a Santa-wannabe.
At the end of the evening, after the dishes were washed and the Christmas wrappings placed in the trash, everyone prepared to attend Midnight Mass. In my home, the whole reason for our celebration was the Christ Child.
Midnight Mass carried with it a special romantic feeling. The decorations, the Christmas carols sung by the choir and the life-size nativity set proudly displayed for everyone. To this day, I remember fathers picking up their children to see the baby Jesus and even some of the little ones kissing the statue of the infant. Romance is usually associated with love and there is something very romantic about Christmas. No matter what mood you might be in, it’s difficult not to embrace the beauty and wonder of the Christmas spirit.
I remember one particular Christmas Eve Mass. It had snowed heavily and when my father came out of church, the car wouldn’t start. It was about 1:30 a.m. We lived only six blocks from the church and we ended up trudging through the snow: my mother, father, grandmother, aunt, sister and myself, but I felt so connected to them. I imagined how families, generations before cars, traveled together, proudly sharing their life and witnessing to their faith.
I lived in an industrial area dominated by the steel mills so the area would often collect the dust created by the making of steel. The snow that Christmas Eve seemed to give a shine to everything around us. The white snow covered everything and there was a sense of purity and innocence. The beauty of Christmas brings forth the child that lingers in all of us.
Christmas is about the Child. It is the Child Jesus who comes into the world innocent, vulnerable and loving. He is Emmanuel – God is with us. This will be my first Christmas as the archbishop of Milwaukee. As I celebrate midnight Mass at the cathedral, I will carry to the altar the history of all the Christmases celebrated by the archbishops, bishops, priests, religious, deacons, lay ministers and faithful in the great archdiocese who witnessed the faith in joyful and trying times and who have bestowed on us this great legacy.
I will celebrate the present Christmas giving thanks for all of you who continue to build the Body of Christ, creating in your lives new examples of faith and adding to the rich heritage we enjoy.
And I will be praying for our Christmas future, that together we may go forward with our hopes and desires, building upon the confidence that we place in the Christ Child who demonstrates God’s love for us.
I wish all of you a Merry Christmas. Please know of my gratitude for allowing me to be a part of your history.