My wife always frets during this time of year. The fretting begins about three weeks before Thanksgiving and doesn’t end until some time after Christmas.
She frets because she is a loving, kind, thoughtful, and generous person. Her single wish is for everyone to have a joyous and blessed Christmas. And she is determined to do whatever she has to do to make it so for her family and friends.
Since we moved from our hometown in Illinois to Michigan when I changed jobs many years ago, our Thanksgivings and Christmases haven’t been huge family get-together affairs. They’ve been mostly spent by my wife, our sons, and me, by ourselves, at home. But this has always been by choice. We’ve always had standing invitations to stay with relatives back in Illinois for Christmas. But when our boys were young we wanted them to be able to wake up in their own beds in their own home on Christmas morning.
A few times over the last 36 years we have had family members out to visit us for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but for the most part our Thanksgivings and Christmases consisted of just the five us. Given that this is the case, one might think, what’s there to fret over? The answer is ‘lots.’
For one thing, my wife knocks herself out making sure that all our family members back in Illinois are remembered on Christmas. For a number of years this meant that two moms, two dads, two brothers, three sisters, three brothers-in-law, two sisters-in-law, and 12 nieces and nephews all had to have presents from us to open on Christmas day.
Of course friends and co-workers have to be remembered as well. And this has meant shopping for presents, starting sometimes in September, and making sure they all got wrapped and shipped before Thanksgiving (to beat the long lines at the Post Office).
Christmas Presents and Decorations
Of course shopping for Christmas presents for our sons, when they were little, was an on-going chore. Their Christmas lists seemed to grow with every new television commercial for a new toy. And heaven help us if a toy catalog showed up in the mail! It was always a challenge making sure each of our sons got at least one thing they really wanted, and that all three had exactly the same number of gifts to open on Christmas morning, all without breaking the bank.
And while the shopping for Christmas presents was going on, Thanksgiving decorations had to be dug out of the basement, put out, and then put away again once Thanksgiving was over. After a short reprieve it was time to start thinking about the Christmas decorations.
The outside decorations are always the biggest challenge. It’s no fun hanging lights when it’s 30 degrees (or lower), or if it’s snowing. And the older I get the harder it gets. So I always keep tabs on the weather and hope for a nice sunny day. In the meantime, of course, the lights still have to be checked first to make sure they are all working.
My wife supervises the inside decorations. And over the years this has often been an ongoing, two- to three-week chore.
From One Tree to Two
When our kids were young we only had a tree in the family room but about 20 years ago my wife decided we needed a second tree. So we had two trees, one in the family room, and a second, more elegant tree in the living room, in front of the window. (Now, thankfully, we are back down to one tree!) This is in addition to all the other decorations!
But try as she might, my wife just cannot seem to find the perfect spot for the Nativity set. It’s been in about five different spots so far and sometimes this has meant moving furniture around. I’m curious as to where it will be this year.
Meal planning and baking for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas day also takes place while everything else is going on. Turkey is the main dish on Thanksgiving and usually on Christmas day, and my wife is always determined to make sure everyone gets their favorite side dish and desert for both meals.
What to do for Christmas Eve dinner is always the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question. My wife makes great lasagna even though she is not Italian. But a nice pork roast with dumplings, or a ham and au gratin potatoes are also good Christmas Eve dinners. And during years that were better than others financially, going out for Christmas Eve dinner was a good option, only because it meant less work for my wife.
When Advent Comes
But even with all the running around and buying and doing, our Faith is paramount. Advent begins a week or so after Thanksgiving, and that means Christmas Day is not far off. And keeping holy the Lord’s Day and going to Mass during the Advent Season always seems to bring with it a special joy.
The hour or so we spend at Mass always seems more meaningful and more needed during Advent. The time spent reflecting on God’s goodness, thanking Him for everything He has given us, and preparing ourselves for the coming of our Savior is time especially well spent during the weeks leading up to Christmas. As the world seemingly becomes ever more faster-paced, less moral, and less God Fearing with each passing year, the time spent at Mass during Advent seems to refresh the soul like at no other time of the year.
Advent is a time for reflection and repentance but it is also a time of joyful anticipation. That our God so loves us that He would humble Himself and take on human form to open the gates of Heaven for us never ceases to astound me. How can we not joyfully commemorate His birth?
Our Midnight Mass Tradition Starts
Of course, Advent culminates at midnight on Christmas Eve. And for our family going to Midnight Mass has always been the best part of Christmas. In the 45 years we’ve been married, my wife and I have only not been able to go to Midnight Mass just once. Some 34 years ago our youngest son decided he wanted to come into the world on December 20. That year mom stayed home with our new son and I went to 11:30 a.m. Mass on Christmas Day with our other two sons.
When our first son was born we still lived in Illinois. We also lived in close proximity to my family and my wife’s family. My parents traditionally hosted our small family on Christmas Day. This worked out great because my wife’s parents always had their much larger family on Christmas Eve. So we never had to figure out whose house to go to when. I wish that all newlyweds could be so fortunate!
Christmas Eve at my in-laws house started around 4:30 pm, but always ended promptly at 11:00 pm. This was to make sure everyone got to church early enough to get a seat at Midnight Mass. Whoever got to the church first always had a daunting task. They had to save an entire pew to make sure we could all sit together.
Since those early years in our marriage my wife and I have made it a tradition to attend Midnight Mass. There’s something wondrous and especially spiritual, we feel, about going to Mass at midnight on Christmas day.
Silent Nights and White Christmases
The unhurried drive to church during the dark and silent night is a serene experience. We drive on empty roads, with Christmas carols quietly playing on the radio. Quite often in the Midwest we have a white Christmas. This makes the drive even more wondrous. The houses with their Christmas lights twinkling amidst an endless blanket of glistening and sparkling snow makes the drive almost mesmerizing.
The drive to Midnight Mass in the dead of night always makes me think of Joseph and Mary on the road to Bethlehem: “And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” (Luke 2:4-5)
This feeling only deepened when we moved to Michigan. But we’ve noticed a change in the attendance at Midnight Mass.
Thirty years ago if we didn’t get to the church at least 45 minutes early we risked not getting a seat. The main part of the church was usually full. But over those 30 years attendance at Midnight Mass has slacked off. For the last few years anyone arriving 10 minutes before the start of Mass could still find a seat. I’m not sure why this is so. I wonder if it’s the same in other parishes.
In 2017 we got about six inches of snow on Christmas Eve so Midnight Mass attendance was understandably way down. But last year even people arriving right before the start of Mass were able to find seats.
Continuing Wonder and Awe
For many years now, with our sons all grown up, it’s only been my wife and me attending Midnight Mass. But I have no doubt that the joy and the sense of wonder and awe will still be there this year. As usual, we plan on attending Midnight Mass. And it will be as if we are there with the shepherds keeping the night watch on their flocks 2,000 years ago.
“The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.
“The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
“For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.
“And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
“And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest.” [Luke 2:9-14]