One year at the beginning of Advent, our family agreed to write a letter to every other family member, thanking each for a particular gift. It was an idea left over from our Marriage Encounter weekends—to share feelings in writing. The letters could be any length, even just a few sentences, as long as we affirmed a gift in each person.
Two days before Christmas, our 14-year-old son put his letters in the designated crystal bowl first. On Christmas Eve the mood in the house turned meditative as each person stole away to a quiet place to think and write. Our 6-year-old dictated his letters to me. I knew he understood the intent of the project when he wrote to his sister, “Thank you for always picking me for flashlight tag.”
In the excitement of exchanging presents on Christmas morning, the letters were buried under a sea of wrapping paper. But after the last gift was opened, my daughter remembered them. All was silent but for the strains of “Silent Night” in the background. Then came the quiet, even tearful, “thank yous” to one another. As I whispered the contents of his letters to our 6-year-old, his head rested on the back of the couch and his eyes were closed. When had he taken in so much love? When had any of us taken in so much love from one another?
That day we were all a bit more generous, more loving and more open. At dinner, Grandpa said: “There is so much love here. Be grateful for the love and caring that you share in your family.” It was a graced day. I believe that our four kids connected the dots and realized that Christmas does not come only once a year, but whenever we share Christ’s love with others.
Lake Forest, Ill.
St. Nicholas Arrives
A flesh-and-blood St. Nicholas has been part of our family life since the oldest of our eight children were toddlers. In those days, the good saint came to our home on the eve of his feast day, Dec. 6, in an improvised Eastern Rite bishop’s outfit complete with a crown. He questioned the little ones about their behavior during the past year and always found them deserving of candy canes, candy coins, cookies and a holy card. This custom set a religious tone for the Advent season.
In later years, the Bishop of Myra arrived with an angel and a devil to help him decide if the children had been good. They always were. Our guests now included the parish priests, the children’s friends and their mothers and the parish parochial school faculty. We enlivened the event by singing songs in English and German, reading a poem by Paul Claudel, adding a puppet play, quizzes and a party afterward—all an outgrowth of the 14th-century miracle plays that began in northern France.
These days, the children of the neighborhood parish school, St. Clement, welcome the big-hearted bishop and his companions, showing the same love and excitement as did the other children over the years. Perhaps they share the reaction of the Austrian liturgist Francis Xavier Weiser, S.J., who said, recalling his own childhood, “Never again, in all my life, have I experienced the unspeakable thrill of a physical nearness to heaven as I did on those evenings of my childhood when St. Nicholas came to us.”
JANE BECK SANSALONE
Treks and Candles
My parents, who were originally farmers from northern Michigan, have given me a host of family rituals and traditions. When Advent appeared on the family calendar, for example, all seven of us children knew that the time was different, special, challenging. When the weather was not freezing, those Sundays in winter found us walking to St. Thomas the Apostle church on Detroit’s east side. On this trek of a few miles, our family formed a procession along Van Dyke Avenue, all nine of us stretched in single file with my youngest sister, Diane, and my twin and me at the end. Dad’s brisk walk kept us aiming for the goal: Mass with the lighting of an Advent candle on each of the four Sundays before Christmas. I especially liked the rose-colored candle, which told me that Advent was half over. I did not yet understand that this holy season anticipated the joy of Christmas.
With my nose against the windowpane of our two-story home near the Detroit airport, I would wait for the Goodfellows to deliver gift boxes to our family. We depended on these, which substituted for gifts that mom and dad could not give, with their two sets of twins, though they both worked full- and part-time jobs to get us through school with shoes, clothes and food.
Candlelight. It was all light for this little heart.
LAWRENCE M. VENTLINE
Harrison Township, Mich.
For more O Holy Night stories and suggestions by America readers, read "A Season of Giving."