This year Christmas will be very different for us and it’s taken some real effort on my part to adjust. My oldest son and his family, including my three young grandsons and a fourth in the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia NICU will not be celebrating with us this year. They will celebrate as a family in their home away from home in Philly where mom has relocated to be a constant presence for their newest child.
In addition we have decided to forgo gift giving this year, to focus on the more important meaning of the season, and eliminate the stress that too often accompanies a time that is meant to be holy and peaceful. This is an adjustment for all of us, though, I’m sure, welcomed by many.
For most of us, the holidays are a time of traditions, when memories of past celebrations help frame our present rituals. Change can be hard at these times, but remembering the real blessings can help make the changes not only bearable but important milestones in our spiritual growth.
As an only child living in upstate New York, my memories of Christmases past always include a quiet morning with my parents, opening gifts which spilled out from under an artificial tree decorated with the biggest lights I can remember, wrapped in garland and weighed down with silver icicles. By today’s standards it might have been garish, but then it was wondrous.
Our Christmas visits to family were not times of gift-giving, but times of sitting around a table, eating and drinking and sharing multiple conversations all at the same time. They were joyful times, even when the conversations became heated. There were enough children always present that we didn’t pay much attention to adult things. That in itself was a gift.
I remember feet of snow needing to be shoveled from the driveway, hot chocolate and mamool, a Syrian pastry made with cream of wheat and ground nuts, and I remember a few favorite gifts – like the guitar my parents hid in the coat closet, my first transistor radio and my powder blue ice skates.
But the gift that was most memorable, and continues to make a difference in my life even today, was a set of large, beautifully illustrated books of Old and New Testament stories, books of memories of both the Hebrew and Christian people.
The stories and colorful prints that accompanied them introduced me to Adam and Eve and the serpent, to King Solomon who wisely settled an argument between two mothers claiming the same baby by suggesting the child be divided in half and shared, and to Daniel, who survived the lions’ den through God’s intercession and saw the Tower of Babel fall as humanity sought to become like God.
But the story that most fascinated me was that of Shadrach, Mishach and Abednego – the three young men who survived being thrown in a fiery furnace because an angel of the Lord walked with them in the fire.
Like so many figures in Scripture, these were people through whom God carried out his work, whose relationship with God gave them life, and made them strong and resilient in spite of their human frailty.
Pope Francis has said, “Memory makes us draw closer to God. The memory of that work which God carried out in us, in this recreation, in this regeneration, that takes us beyond the ancient splendor that Adam had in the first creation.”
The Holy Father calls us to consider, not only during our holy seasons, but every day: “What’s my life been like, what was my day like today or what has this past year been like? (It’s all about) memory. What has my relationship with the Lord been like? Our memories of the beautiful and great things that the Lord has carried out in the lives of each one of us.”
Mary Clifford Morrell is the author of "Things My Father Taught Me About Love," and "Let Go and Live: Reclaiming your life by releasing your emotional clutter," both available as ebooks on Amazon.com.