Friday, December 5, 2008

Christmas Past

I grew up in a small town in southern Minnesota where Christmases were white and freezing-ass cold. I remember going to the car for midnight mass, the bitter cold had seemingly turned the snow to styrofoam, a crunch you only heard when the temperature fell well below zero. My oldest brother B would wrap his arms around me and rub as hard as he could to try and warm up my sleepy, freezing body in the family station wagon with the cold, cold vinyl bench seats. 
The stars were glittering, brilliant pinpricks in the inky black sky and every in breath froze my nose hairs and every out breath melted them. Mittens became handkerchiefs to swipe at my face. 

The church was beautiful and unusually full, there were even folding chairs in the side aisles. The light was warm and golden and real Christmas trees surrounded the huge creche to the left side of the lower level of the altar. The priests were in their finest and the altar boys wore red robes underneath their white cassocks as they all proceeded in from the rear of the church instead of the side. 

It was long enough ago that our parish had 3 priests and they all 
celebrated each Christmas mass. But midnight mass was special - 
the full choir sang from the choir loft in the rear. The traditional 
hymns still warm me and take me back. One of my very favorites 
is a woman singing O, Holy Night hitting the impossible high notes 
with perfection. 

My dad was one of the regular ushers. They would rotate so he sat with us when it wasn't his turn. If he was ushering and it was time to collect the offering with the felt lined baskets on the long poles he would shake it in front of me, trying to get more out of me - either mortifying me or reducing me to giggles depending on my degree of alertness. When he sat with us there was trouble to be had. My father had one of the worst singing voices in all of the midwest and he would sing at the top of his lungs just to make us laugh. You know that church laugh - uncontrollable shaking shoulders, fruitlessly trying to suppress any sound. This would elicit stern looks from my mother and we would whisper to her 'but Dad...'

'I can't control your father' she would snip - Dad would look piously (and smugly) toward the altar - he never got in trouble. If things got too out of hand she would get between Dad and us.

I remember kneeling and not being able to see over the pew in front of me. It was long past my bedtime and I would routinely get tunnel vision which I now know to be nearly falling asleep (or fainting) while I stood or knelt or sat. I suspect all of that changing of positions was precisely to keep the young and the old awake during the long and formal mass.

After it was over people would not linger - rather yell out Merry Christmas and quickly get into their freezing cars hoping they would start yet again in the cold night air. 

When we got home we would be hurried off to bed, after all Santa Claus was coming and we all had to be asleep. I would wake to laughter as the younger two priests arrived, mom having prepared a fancy Christmas breakfast served at 1:00 am. I remember the grapefruit cut in half with a zigzag pattern, a cherry in the center and copious amounts of vodka poured over them before they were broiled. Dad was, no doubt, making his famous Bloody Marys. If nothing else, Catholics know how to imbibe. I have no idea how long the festivities would last having long since fallen back asleep despite my sister T's and my vow to stay awake to hear the sleigh bells.

Morning inevitably arrived and we would call out and see if we could get up yet. 

'No go back to sleep' my mother would reply.

Yeah, right. Tell that to any kid who still believes in Santa Claus.

When we got the OK we would race down the hall to the living room and the tree. I had six siblings for a total of nine people in that house and sometimes the presents came five or six feet out from that tree (or so it seemed). Two of us would pass out the gifts. When all were distributed we ripped in to them all at once - it would have taken days if we did it one at a time.

'Mom look at this!'

'wow! look what Santa brought me!'

'oh, there is one here with no name on it'

A boisterous, messy time, wrapping paper and bows flying - a lovely time... 

And when things had quieted down someone would remember the stockings and we would run off to get them, excitement building again. The stockings always had practical stuff in them like scotch tape and socks and an orange but lots of times if you dug way down in the toe you would find Hershey's kisses - manna from heaven as far as my chocolate-loving family was concerned. And that was as good a breakfast starter as any I've ever had.

We would run and get dressed for breakfast which consisted of eggs and bacon and orange juice AND homemade sweet rolls and caramel rolls. I would unwind them slowly and savor each bite. 

The rest of the day would go s-l-o-w-l-y -- the after-excitement-let-down settling in until late afternoon when my cousins would arrive. My dad and Uncle Bill were brothers and he and Aunt Margie had seven children as well - pretty well matched up in age to us. 

And complete chaos would ensue once again - all was right with the world.

This Christmas Gapetto and I are staying put with the Bunny Rabbit and the Dolly Llama. Gapetto is looking forward to the quiet. I will be remembering the days of mayhem with a smile...

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At December 6, 2008 at 8:27 AM , Blogger su said...

How neat.. I have not reflected on thos days and midnight mass in years.. Though I had only 2 sibs and they were older, Dad had a movie camera with a bright light bar. We would always have to change into clean nightgowns or PJs before decending the stairs to the blinding light of the movie camera light bar. Great times with such fond memories. Be well Recovering Martha. Su

At December 6, 2008 at 11:23 AM , Blogger Beth (A Mom's Life) said...

What a beautiful post! Sounds like you have wonderful Christmas memories. And I love that sometimes your mom would have to get between your dad and the kids. Your dad sounds like a hoot!

My husband is a cradle Catholic and I joined the church in 2007. Our kids are 4 and 6 and we've never taken them to Midnight Mass. Maybe one of these years we will try it. I'm just not sure if I could stay awake! :)

At December 6, 2008 at 1:58 PM , Blogger Jen - Queen of Poo said...

Ah, midnight mass. We used to do that too.

I'm wondering what small town you grew up in. My mom and dad are from Wells. All of my relatives live there or around there, and I still visit.

At December 6, 2008 at 10:54 PM , Blogger undercover caterer said...

I don't miss midnight mass, but I do miss the Xmas morning mayhem. Not enough of us that get together now. We still make cinnamon rolls though!

And, I'm glad to know that our family's horrible singing goes back really isn't just me...and my kids....and my dad, aunts, and uncle....

At December 8, 2008 at 9:10 AM , Blogger Reluctant Housewife said...

Sounds like a wonderful holiday. You must love Christmas, with such great memories.

At December 8, 2008 at 4:53 PM , Blogger Just Another Mom said...

Ahhhh Midnight Mass. In my town they moved it to 10pm years ago. When I was younger and it was at midnight, we would go to my Grandma's afterwards for the best pineapple rolls. We still do, actually, but earlier now.

Your family sounds wonderful. My mom was one of 8 kids in a big Catholic family.

Great story, very well written.

Hope you and your family have a Merry Christmas!

Katie -

At December 9, 2008 at 9:02 PM , Blogger Oh, The Joys said...

that was a great read. I was right there.

So... we'll be home too... the whole time.


At December 10, 2008 at 2:55 PM , Blogger Lisa said...

Thanks for joining my contest. I added you story to Mr. Linky.

At December 10, 2008 at 10:27 PM , Blogger Leendaluu said...

I love that story....I have such sweet memories of Christmases past... I hope my children will feel the same some day.

At December 11, 2008 at 2:25 PM , Blogger MamaGeek @ Works For Us said...

It never ceases to amaze me the strength of such warming memories.

This was so beautiful. Again.

At December 12, 2008 at 6:37 AM , Blogger Laura said...

Wow - have just started reading your blog - have kind of read everything backwards and upside down, but I get it!

At December 12, 2008 at 9:44 AM , Blogger ValleyGirl said...

What a wonderfully homey, feel-good post! Memories of past Christmases do have a way of warming the heart, don't they?

At December 13, 2008 at 7:43 PM , Blogger Debbie said...

Now that is one of the best written posts I've read in a long time. I felt like I was there! What great childhood memories you have.
I'm so behind in my post reading but thankful I saved this one.

At December 13, 2008 at 7:56 PM , Blogger Carol Walsh said...

Memories....thanks for the memories,
your descriptions put back there. I hated the kneeler's they made my back hurt and there were 11 of us so we took up the whole pew. I love the image of your Dad singing it his way...i would like to imagine he did it purposely to add the laughter.
I'm looking forward to seeing your Christmas cheer this year.
love carol

At December 15, 2008 at 10:20 AM , Blogger cassieb said...

we still go to midnight mass (except that it is at ten these days) The church is always so beautiful and full..except for Aiden jumping around its pretty quiet as well :)


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