When I was a grumpy teenager in high school, I retreated one Advent to the calm of our cellar and allowed only my sister to visit for help. We had a project. It had been years since we had set up the “Christmas platform”; but that year we had a new baby, something of such cosmic significance for us that it overwhelmed even my teenaged surliness. Regina and I sanded tracks, screwed them into place, got out the Plasticville houses, tested the lights, connected the trains. I slept too long on Christmas morning, so our father had to tell me about baby Michael’s glazed-eyed astonishment when, once seated on his throne, he discovered that his living room had been transformed.
That memory, added to many others, of Christmas celebrated in different lands and the recent phenomenon of globalization, occasions this brief reflection. If a child were savvy enough to take advantage of it, he or she might well take a good look at the traditions of “old Europe” and insist that they be celebrated today.
In northern Europe, children might anticipate the coming of St. Nicholas. His arrival on his feast, Dec. 6, could be the first of many present-giving days. In the Netherlands and in parts of Germany, he is expected to arrive from sunny Spain. How he got there from his see of Myra in equally sunny Turkey need not be examined too closely. He gives presents to the good children, just as he did in folklore to his own people.
On Dec. 13 Scandinavians celebrate St. Lucy’s Day, for the saint of kindness and love. She is honored by boys who hold lit candles and by girls who wear lit candles (now battery operated) as a crown.
For Christmas itself, the traditions vary. When I was a young student-priest in France, our superior, remembering his own student days, called us in individually and banished us from the house for the holidays. He remembered his own classmates on the Isle of Jersey in the 1930’s as being terribly homesick for Ireland, England and Germany at Christmas, and did not want us to have the same sad experience.
So one Christmas I went to Rome with his blessing and the task of talking my way out of a job that would have placed me there for 20 years. A quiet lunch with some wise Jesuit superiors lifted the Roman job from my shoulders and left me with the time free to enjoy a proper Italian Christmas. That was the first Christmas of Pope John Paul II, and we were asked to provide four men to aid with Communion at midnight Mass. A clean shave and a Jesuit habit were the only requirements, and I fit the bill. So with Father John Conlin and Father Paul Rock, I went to St. Peter’s that night. Father Rock was an official of a pontifical seminary, so he was saluted by the Swiss Guard, as were we lesser stooges, delighted by the pageantry. The pope seemed to look through each of us when his gaze surveyed the group. We all agreed that it was penetrating. Then in the next days we all visited the Roman churches with the extraordinary animated crèches, with angels who fly, donkeys who move and shepherds who bow. It was a hard Christmas experience to top. Had I stayed in Rome, I would have been there for the visit of Bufana, the good witch, who comes on Epiphany with presents for the children.
But the Christmas memory that tops even those is the one of the surly teenager, with my little brother on my lap, him fascinated with the Christmas platform. There was a switch that buzzed, and I held his hand to make it work. He imitated the buzz as we both pressed the switch. Over and over on that Christmas day, I manipulated the controls, and he pushed the switch button, buzzing in glee, not so much at the moving trains as at the sound and the lights. It may have been his first experience of masculine control, and he must have relished it because now his home exudes the Christmas spirit. Our sister-in-law, Miriam, indulges him fully, and there are enough lights in the front of their house to allow a 747 to land safely. The sunroom is transformed into a church, with real 50 percent beeswax candles, chalice and paten brought by our sister from Bethlehem, and proper altar breads, good Philadelphia Catholics that we are. And our crèche is embellished by Mainzelmännchen, from my time in Germany, and our tree with 1930’s Christmas bulbs of blown glass, also from Germany, bought by our very Irish grandmother, Nora, before World War II.
For every time there is a season. Christmas is one that is both universal for Christians and most personal. It seems that in these days, our hope is that the traditions can come together to allow the pervasive grace of the Prince of Peace to touch our hearts and minds. And at this sacred moment, we must keep paramount in our hearts and our prayers the brothers and sisters of Jesus, who suffer and celebrate in the place of his birth, that they may experience the peace that we enjoy and treasure.