O Holy Night 2: Readers share suggestions for keeping Christmas sacred

The Walnut Doors

The happiest memory of my childhood is of Christmas Eve, as I stood with my cousins and knocked on the double walnut doors that led to the living room at the house of my Grandma and Grand Pap. Several weeks before Christmas these huge doors had been closed and locked. No one was allowed in the Christmas room except my grandparents. Grand Pap would drag in a tree from the market. Grandma would assemble the family’s magnificent German nativity set. Presents galore were carefully laid around the huge tree, which seemed to stretch to the top of their 11-foot-high ceiling.

On Christmas Eve the whole family would gather and wait outside the walnut doors. We would sing carols and dunk Grandma’s anise cookies in her eggnog, freshly made and specially spiced with nutmeg. As each family of aunts, uncles and cousins arrived, we would loudly sing in greeting, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Grand Pap would slip unnoticed into the Christmas room and light the tree. We children would knock on the doors, “Is it time yet, Papap?” “No, not yet! Santa’s still working,” he would say playfully. Time and again, we would knock and call, “Is it time yet, Papap?” We lined up before the doors from youngest to oldest waiting for the moment when the Christmas room would be revealed. But not until every family member was present and our excitement had built to bursting did those walnut doors swing open. Then, before the first gift was opened, all the grandchildren knelt in front of the nativity to sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus.

Grand Pap and Grandma are long home with Jesus now. Their house with the walnut doors has been demolished, but the customs live on. We still sing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as each of my eight sisters and brothers and their children arrive at the house for Christmas. We still line up, youngest to oldest, to march into the Christmas room. And we still sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. It wouldn’t be Christmas unless we did.


Weirton, W.Va.

City Celebration

The Christmas vigil Mass in our suburban parish was always exciting, with the pews packed and the choir at the top of its game. But some years ago, after a priest friend was made pastor of an old inner-city parish on Chicago’s North Side, my wife and I packed our seven kids into the van to celebrate Christmas at his parish. The exodus of Catholics into the suburbs over the years had left his congregation much smaller and the church building rather neglected. While we would be strangers at the city parish, we would also be guaranteed an open pew and could sit together as a family. So off we went in our 12-passenger Dodge to find St. Gregory the Great, its outside well lit with decorations. Inside we found a pew and a congregation with a sprinkling of young, vibrant Catholics of diverse backgrounds who welcomed us warmly to their parish.

Thus our Christmas migration to different parishes in urban Chicago. There’s always room in the pews at these grand places, so we’ve often invited relatives to join us. Each year we honor the Incarnation by visiting a parish that is not our own. Enveloped in familiar prayers and a tradition that makes us feel at home, we are surrounded by strangers who remind us that we are not quite there yet. We always return home richer for the experience.


Wilmette, Ill.

Making Links

This year our parish has adopted the theme “Welcoming the Stranger,” in an attempt to show the connections between Mary and Joseph as refugees and those who are immigrants and refugees around the world today and our own spiritual journeys. As Advent begins we feature an evening of reflection for adults on the experience of immigrants. Later we offer schoolchildren a “Journey to Bethlehem” breakfast and a walk past tableaus by slightly older children depicting Nativity scenes. In preparation for Christmas we set a table in the church with one place-setting missing to remind us that we ourselves must provide the welcome and place-setting for the stranger in our midst.


McMurray, Pa.

Vigil Dinner

During my first year in medical school, I called my family and asked them if they’d like to have dinner at a nearby restaurant before attending the Christmas Vigil Mass. The dinner was so relaxed, so laugh-filled and such a good chance to rediscover one another that we have repeated it each year for the past 20 years.


Bronx, N.Y.

For more O Holy Night stories and suggestions by America readers, visit www.americamagazine.org/holynight.

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