A new decade was peeping over the horizon in 1959. It was Christmas Eve, and at age 8, I would be allowed to attend midnight Mass.
We arrived at St. Mary of Sorrows Church on Genesee Street at 11 p.m. My parents, along with my Aunt Agnes and Uncle Leo, were part of the choir performing Christmas carols. The caroling concluded with the congregation singing “Silent Night.”
Baby Jesus arrived in a procession of choirboys, which included my cousins. Monsignor Nuwer appeared wearing resplendent vestments of white and blue with a miter perched on his head. Our other priests, the Revs. Trapp, Wagner and Schroeder, also took part in the procession. Imagine, four priests assigned to one parish! I was in awe of the pageantry, which culminated in the baby being placed among the crèche figures waiting at the side altar.
After Mass, we congregated at Aunt Maryann and Uncle Norbert’s home on Herman Street. The table was spread with an array of treats, but I was more interested in the Christmas wonderland that greeted us in their living room. At the end of a large train board, a Balsam tree cast colored light across a train chugging through a miniature village.
Fighting sleep, at around 3 a.m., I joined my Grandma Schwab, father, mother and sister as we walked in the brisk night air back to 221 Herman St.
Despite the late bedtime, we would rise a few hours later and rush to the dining room, where presents overflowed under the Christmas tree.
It is not the fresh-cut trees I remember, but the artificial variety. My memory recalls a white tree adorned with red and blue ornaments, and a shimmering silver tree, constantly changing as a rotating circle cast colored lights on its surface.
As Christmas approached, there had been a visit to see Santa at Kobacker’s department store on Broadway. A wish list of items appeared under the tree. There was a tin dollhouse, and a small blond doll that came complete with a wardrobe of tiny clothes lovingly sewn by Grandma Schwab. Games arrived, including Uncle Wiggily. I recall being very disappointed that mine did not include plastic bunny game pieces – just wooden circular markers.
The time between Christmas and New Year’s Day overflowed with family visits. We would head over to Aunt Agnes and Uncle Leo’s house on Johnson Street, Aunt Sis and Uncle Sid’s on Wyoming Street and Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Ed’s on Sheffield Street.
They would all come to our house, too. There would be two “sessions” – one for the Schwab side of the family and one for the Schoenwetter side.
At these gatherings, Mom would play carols on our piano. The piano stool was full of sheet music. Many were gifts from her friends and ex-beaus inscribed with, “Just Margie,” and the year. It was a special treat when her fingers would dance across the keyboard while playing “The Skater’s Waltz,” or accompany the family clustered around her singing.
My first midnight Mass, and that Christmas of 1959, would mark the end of my first decade of life. Little did I realize the changes in store for the world, and me, in the ’60s. Society was changing, but the feeling of warmth that came from Christmas, and being surrounded by family, was a constant I could depend upon.