As the youngest (by many years) of six children, my earliest and favorite memory of Christmas has always been Christmas Eve. Our family would attend our church service, usually taking up a whole pew, and I had many close relatives who were church members as well, so we presented quite a large group. It was especially wonderful to me since my older siblings, some of who had moved away, would come home on that day to stay and celebrate the holiday festivities.
I vividly remember watching out our large living room picture window for my siblings arrival, trying so hard to be patient! Once everyone was home, I felt such a sense of joy that our family was complete. After dinner we would dress for the evening service. The stained-glass windows never looked more beautiful than in the soft light of the evening. The flowers were so fragrant. The pews were filled with familiar faces and their visiting extended family members. There was a thrill of excitement rippling throughout the congregation; and I remember how respectful and quiet it was even though the church was filled to the brim.
We sat and listened to the beloved Christmas story from the book of Luke, mesmerized by the much-awaited miracle of Jesus’ birth. And as beautiful as that story is, the music was equally as touching to me to hear the beautiful hymns for this season. I love Christmas hymns; but none more than ”Silent Night”. The tradition was to light your candle during this song, and slowly stand to form a circle all around the pews until we were joined into one group, lovingly singing, our faces glowing by candlelight, surrounding the entire house of worship.
When all of the verses were sung, the church emptied silently. So powerful. That image still lives in my memory bank; feeling chills and gratefulness for such a peaceful moment of the miracle of our Savior’s birth. This experience throughout my childhood is one that I have strived to continue every year. And although every church has various traditions, being a part of a late evening service that brings back those feelings of joy, peace and chills of excitement is something I pray to partake in for many more years.
Growing up in the Florida Keys, my memories of Christmas are a little different than most. Half dead Christmas trees bought at Publix, singings songs about snow while wearing shorts, driving down Bee Street which went all out with their outdoor decorations, and who can forget, the numerous Manatee mailboxes wearing Santa hats. Sadly, one thing that I don’t remember is having any traditions that we celebrated annually as a family. It wasn’t until after Chris and I started spending the holidays together, that I began to see what the holidays should really be like. That first year, I was introduced to the infamous, “Day after Thanksgiving feast” with his best friend’s family.
When we bought our house, we went to the Christmas tree farm and cut down our first tree. I was thrilled to tears when my Grandmom gifted us with handmade Christmas stockings with our names on them. Our first Christmas season at St. Mary Anne’s, I was overjoyed to be a part of the annual traditions of the church, Advent Wreath making, the Cookie Walk, watching the Christmas parade on the porch with my grandparents and friends, Wreaths Across America and our magnificent Christmas Eve service.
Henry’s first Christmas last year, brought even more traditions to our family – pictures with Santa, personalized ornaments, and matching family pajamas. The holiday season is so magical and while I’m soaking in all of the lights, smells and songs of Christmas, I am exceptionally grateful to now have our own traditions that I cherish so dearly.
I’m standing at the table, unwrapping all my Christmas ornaments. As they are opened, they will be rewrapped and placed in another box for Jenn, who will be the new family Official Keeper of The Ornaments. The box was not opened last year, as I had just moved to my present situation, so this will be a real treat.
First to come out of the box, and then be placed in Jenn’s box, are the multi-color twinkle lights.
About 30 years ago, my parents bought a decorated Christmas tree from Treasure Island. The store held annual contests and charity auctions. My parents bought two strips of tickets and placed them all in the collection box of a tree decorated with colored lights and hand-made angel ornaments. Angels were prominent in mom’s decorating scheme. Although Mom had won the chance to purchase (for 50 percent off!) the tree of her dreams, it could not be removed from the store until Epiphany. Five years later, my parents decided to switch to clear lights and the drama that followed is a treasured family memory.
The first ornament I touch is clear. Inside it are ribbon strips and a photo of Gwen taken three months before her first and only Christmas. A thin strip of rose-colored ribbon covers the bale at the top of the ornament. I give a tearful smile as I remember Father Tommy Allen, the priest who officiated at Gwen’s funeral, said that sometimes God was selfish, taking His most perfect creations Home at an early age. This deprives their loved ones but also allows the newly arrived soul to remain in His Kingdom, free of life’s vicissitudes. Gwen was interred in a family plot where a small evergreen tree stands. Gwen’s Christmas tree is decorated with her special decorations. A new one is bought and added to the collection each year.
Next is a cranberry colored ornament. It is one of nine that I purchased at the former Eckerd’s in Havre de Grace. It features a sketch of SMA by Anne Bates which used to be on the cover of the service bulletins. On another ornament from this set, I placed a Tome School picture of Jenn. Seeing it always gives me a nostalgic smile remembering her at the young age of six.
One ornament is a rabbit, sitting in a rocking chair knitting. She’s wearing her robe and her own bunny slippers. It was a gift from Hank, because I used to knit a lot. However, I now have mild arthritis in my hands, causing them to ache after a half hour of knitting.
The last ornament, which I’ll specifically describe, is from a series called The Fabulous Decade. It depicted a series of cats, with thin brass numbers worked into each ornament. This one is from 1975, our 20th anniversary. It depicts an orange tabby lying on a green box. We had a brown tabby then, so this is fairly close.
Each of the ornaments remaining is equally memorable and I treasure the entire collection. Now it’s time for Jenn to take over. This has been a nostalgic afternoon.
Rick grew up in the Baptist Church, so the Season of Advent was foreign to him. His family’s yearly observance of Christmas began whenever the Christmas toy catalogs arrived in the mail and the local shopping mall set out their decorations to start their pitch for the holiday spending spree. This started to change when he met Julie and began attending St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Westfield, New Jersey during college weekend visits with her family.
The church’s Advent wreath, and accompanying candles and readings, gave Rick a new perspective on the remembrance of the coming of Jesus, four or five weeks away. After church, Julie’s parents had a gathering around their own Advent wreath in the dining room of their house: artificial greens on a Styrofoam base, but with all the heart of a fresh version. They read the weekly readings and prayers, as they lit the appropriate candles. This became a happily- anticipated yearly tradition. When Rick and Julie moved to Cecil County this tradition continued at St. Mary Anne’s. Though they did not faithfully set up a wreath at home, they and Jonathan and Lauren looked forward to the lighting and readings at church and the accompanying hymns and choir anthems that began the preparation for Christmas Eve services and the start of the true Christmas season.
As the kids grew, they became acolytes and did their part each year with the lighting of the Advent wreath candles. Though they still find themselves pushed into the Christmas season before it is time, Rick and Julie enjoy the respite from the secular hustle and bustle provided by the Sundays of Advent!
Rick and Julie Waterhouse