Stille Nacht, Silent Night

nativity-painting-1This year I went all in for the Holidays. It began with baking and decorating Christmas cookies with our granddaughter, Ada. She’s four now, old enough to help out. Her excitement and joy were infectious and fueled my desire to see this whole season through to the end. I sent out Christmas cards, made candy, decorated the house (including a tree we brought home from the Gila National Forest), strung lights, and entertained a host of family and friends. It was weeks of preparation that culminated in a wonderful Christmas.

This season has also been a time for reflection on faith and a profound connection with Jesus and Mary. Being Catholic, I followed the Advent schedule of readings from the Old and New Testaments. I attended Mass, and on Christmas Eve was fortunate enough to hear a wonderful homily from a wise priest, a brilliant theologian who is a no-nonsense kind of guy when it comes to the bible. Part of his sermon included a story many of us have heard before.

On Christmas Eve 1914 British lieutenant Charles Brewer stood knee deep in mud in the trenches along the Western Front. It was only months into WWI, but the soldiers were cold and scared. Sometime during the night, Brewer heard a soldier sing Stille Nacht, “Silent Night” in German. The song broke the tension and soon it could be heard above the trenches in English and French. During that night and through Christmas Day sworn enemies met on the battlefield to exchange stories of family and small gifts of rations and cigarettes. It was dubbed the Christmas Truce and news of it spread across the world. Such healing power in something as simple as a song.

I studied theology in college but changed my major to education when I learned there was no money in becoming a theologian. Anyone living on a teacher’s salary can see the irony in my decision. I bring this up because over the Holidays I heard two things I often hear when I mention I’m Catholic or that I studied theology. The first was from someone who said Catholics are not Christians. The second was from a friend who said he doesn’t believe in organized religion. I don’t know where the assumption that Catholics are not Christian originated or why, but the Catholic Church was the first church of Christ’s teachings. Some scholars say Jesus appointed the apostle Peter   as the first pope. While others say the Catholic Church was simply a continuation of Jesus’ teachings. In any case, for those who may be curious, the Catholic faith is based on the teachings of our Lord, Jesus Christ our Savior.

The latter decree is puzzling to me. If you do not believe in organized religion, then what is it you believe in? And is the word believe really necessary?  Perhaps it is better to say that you do not participate in any religion or that you do not follow religious practices because by definition, all religion is organized. Whether you follow canons of Jewish prophets, Jesus, Mohamad, Buddah, John Smith, or a myriad of Native American teachers, chances are you are indoctrinated into some kind of system that involves rituals, customs, and moral codes that govern your life to some degree and that these doctrines are founded in religious principles.

As a kid I was under the illusion that Catholicism was old-fashioned, boring, and full of nonsense. I met some cool kids in catechism class, and we had a youth pastor that took us on a retreat, but past that, I couldn’t wait to get confirmation over with. I finally left the church for good after I got my first part-time job at KFC citing scheduling conflicts as an excuse.

This new found freedom opened up a whole world to me. I soon forgot about my religious obligations and spiraled headfirst out of control. Drinking, smoking, sneaking out, lying, these things became easy because God was no longer looking over my shoulder. Jesus didn’t seem to mind that I skipped my nightly prayers. In short order, I’d adopted a teenager’s sensibility regarding religion and held fast to it until at twenty-five a decision I made left me broken and desperate. Unsure of my future, I enrolled at Mount Mary University, a women’s Catholic school in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. What I expected to find there at the time, I still have no idea, but I had an inkling that something inside those walls would help me heal. Over the next four years I found my voice and the confidence to move through my grief. I read everything I could get my hands on about faith and our universal need for it. Slowly I shed my teenage rebellion against my Catholic upbringing and began a new relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. A mature relationship that continues to be the foundation of my daily life.

I’m not an evangelist. I don’t own any cute mugs, shirts, or wall art professing my belief in Jesus Christ. But what I do have is my faith. We are living in precarious times of fake news, hate speech, fear, and divisiveness. A time when religion, rather than being the cornerstone that unites us, is the rock being flung to hurt those we perceive as different from us. It’s a lot to think about during the Holidays. And I for one am ready to unplug the lights and box up the ornaments to settle in for a long winter’s nap. But before I do, I want to wish you a Happy New Year. I will be praying for peace. Join me if you would like. It is never too late.

Ghost of Christmas Past

Family photoBefore childhood memories surface of loading the station wagon with presents and heading up to Green Bay to spend Christmas with a gaggle of cousins, aunts and uncles, and my grandmas who cooked delicious meals and my grandpas who complained about all the ruckus, there is this memory:

I am six years old and my parents take my younger sisters, Kelli and Missi, and me to Gimbels department store in downtown Milwaukee. It’s an ornate corner stone building with storefront windows decked out in Christmas scenes. I stand in awe as mechanical reindeer tilt their heads and carolers blink their eyes and part their small, oval mouths in unison as the music, piped through speakers, reaches the streets. We walk in the store where Christmas trees and miles of garland twinkle with lights. I am pretty sure we have arrived at the North Pole.

Gimbels 2We have been promised a train ride, and I’m disappointed because we have to first sit on Santa’s lap for pictures. The line of parents and squealing kids wraps around the cosmetic counter. Missi, who is two years old, sees Santa and starts wailing. My dad utters, “For Christ’s sake,” before disappearing into the crowd of shoppers; leaving my mom alone to tend to the three of us.

After we cajole Missi through a tearful introduction and photos with Santa, it’s off to the train! My dad mysteriously reappears and up a crowded escalator we go. Another line, but this time my dad stays with us. He loves trains and above our heads an engine the size of a sofa followed by four or five brightly painted tin cars jerks and sputters along a metal rail attached to the ceiling by giant bolts. This is an engineering feat, my dad tells us. Kids wave from the train cars. They look scared. My sisters and I are wearing matching Holiday dresses my mom sewed for us. I yank on my white tights. I hate anything confining on my body. Watching the train circling above me, I want to tear off all of my clothes and run out into the cold. I can’t get on the train. It makes no sense to me. Trains belong on the ground. The line is moving and soon my mom will let go of my hand so that my sisters and I can ascend a set of white-washed, rickety stairs that will take me to my death. I pull on the cuff of my mom’s coat. She bends down and straightens the collar on my dress. “What is it?” she asks.

I point to the train. “I can’t go on that,” I say.

She is smiling. “Of course you can,” she says. “You’re a big girl.”

She gives me a little push toward the stairs. I am now in charge of my sisters. I look behind me. My parents are waving. Climbing the stairs brings me closer to the ceiling. I tug again on my tights. It’s very hot and I bite my lip to keep from screaming. You’re a big girl, I think as a lady in a white sweater ushers us into one of the little train cars. You’re a big girl, I reason as the car jerks and I hit my head against the icy tin. My sisters are looking at me. They will cry if I cry, and my parents will blame me for ruining Christmas. You’re a big girl. You’re a big girl. You’re a big girl, I tell myself until it’s over. Family Photo 2

Nearly fifty years have passed since that awful day, and yet I can still smell my mom’s perfume and see my reflection in my dad’s horned-rimmed glasses. It was the early 70’s. A scary time for people like my parents wedged between the moral codes of the fifties and those of a new generation. We were at war in Viet Nam, the summer of love at Woodstock was still fresh in people’s minds, and bands like the Rolling Stones and The Who were rallying young people to do unthinkable things. It would have been easy for my parents to tuck their little family away someplace safe until things cooled down, but instead we were encouraged to be a part of the world rather than hidden from it. We are living in scary times now, and part of me wanted to shut the doors on Christmas this year. Between the political rhetoric, the devastating wildfires in California, and my beloved border torn asunder, it just seemed easier to pull the curtains and turn off the lights.

But then there is Ron’s granddaughter, Ada; a little beam of light who is looking to us to make her world magical this Christmas. Tuesday she and I are baking cookies. I bought all the glitter and sprinkles I could find. We’ll drink hot chocolate and dance to Christmas carols. I can’t think of anything that would bring me more joy right now.

Many of us have a scary train memory that creeps up during the Holidays. If you’re feeling a bit blue right now, you may borrow my mantra, “You’re a big girl”, while you search for that special thing that brings you joy this Holiday Season.

Gimbels