During 1945’s cold and snow-swept December, Christmas approached. At home, we were all overjoyed to start preparations. For our family of Polish descent, Christmas Eve embodied the loving traditions of Christmas – the vigil meal, breaking the Christmas wafer, strolling together to attend midnight Mass.
I was 11 years old. My father, brother and I decorated the tree in the parlor. Mom, Grandma and Grandpa stuffed holiday sausages into casings in the kitchen. Grandpa would smoke the sausages with wood kindling the next day in the backyard.
Amidst this joyful preparation, sadness hovered over our house: Uncle Joe was ill with tuberculosis in a Perrysburg hospital.
Yet our Christmas tree glowed with hundreds of lights. Hanging garlands sparkled from living room arches over stacks of wrapped gifts. Food simmering on the stove and baking in the oven would be lovingly stored for Christmas Eve in stoneware bowls brought by my grandparents on a passenger ship from Poland.
Suddenly, on Dec. 22, Uncle Joe died. Grief abruptly descended on our house. Grandma announced that all preparations should cease; every decoration must hurriedly be stored away. We were now a home in mourning. Uncle Joe’s wake would convene in the upper flat where he had lived with my aunt and my two cousins.
This year, Christmas would be different. Crushed, I struggled with grieving to tackle the disappointing task of packing away Christmas. In the parlor, I said goodbye to the glittering star at the top of our tree as I reflected: “How could Christmas be taken away?”
I felt Grandma’s arm around my shoulder guiding me into the kitchen. She poured me a cup of peppermint tea she had brewed especially for me.
“Bobby, I want to tell you something about Christmas. The tree, the tinsel, the lights, the decorations – Christmas is not about all of that. Christmas is not the things outside of us. Christmas is the things inside of us.”
Her blue eyes were kind. “Aunt Helen and your cousins are very sad. She lost Joe, her husband. Your cousins lost their daddy, whom they loved. We can all help them by loving them and caring about them; that’s what Christmas is.”
Steam from my teacup warmed my face. Her voice was gentle: “Christmas means the giving of ourselves as God did on that first Christmas Day in Bethlehem when he bestowed his love by sending us his son, Jesus. If we give love, Christmas happens every day of the year, not only December 25.”
Spoken serenely in Polish, her words slowly strengthened and uplifted me. “Bobby, tomorrow we’ll celebrate our traditional Christmas vigil meal. We’ll break the Christmas wafer. We’ll offer each other love and concern. Even during this sad family time, it will still be Christmas because the love we’ll share with one another will encircle us with the love that Jesus taught us, who was born that first Christmas Day.”
I’ve been a priest for over 50 years. I’ve never forgotten how, at 11, I learned the meaning of Christmas from my elderly grandmother. Through these years in my ministry, I’ve shared what she taught me: Christmas is a matter of the heart – not in the receiving – but in the giving of self, as God did on that first Christmas Day.
May your Christmas be merry – full of giving, not of getting.