Buffalo, NY – My earliest memories of Christmas date back to the days when there was no vigil Mass, and hence, little for us to do on the eve of the feast. In her infinite wisdom, my mother took liberties with her German custom of decorating the tree in secret for Christmas morning, and instead let us kids do the honors while she tended to dishes and last-minute preparations. I could scarcely contain myself on the day that for years was so full of mystery, anticipation, possibilities. And waiting. Endless waiting.
We inherited my maternal grandmother's manger, a large rustic stable with honest-to-goodness hay, and despite some wear and tear, beautiful statues depicting all of the players in the first Christmas pageant. I was the youngest in the family for six years. I claimed the job of positioning the figurines; my brothers and sisters no doubt relieved to have me out from under their feet.
I set about the task systematically. An angel hung from the peak of the gabled roof, holding a banner that read, "Gloria in Excelsis Deo." There were three kings accompanied by a camel a grand and exotic animal that my hands could barely control. I relegated all four of them to another part of the living room, estimating how far away they should be if the journey took nearly two weeks, and inching them closer each day beginning with Christmas.
Mary, Joseph and Jesus took center stage, of course. And finally it came time to place the shepherds, their sheep and the other animals. My mother told me the breath of the animals kept the baby warm, so I was careful to stand them near his crib. The cow's ear had broken off years before, leaving only an exposed wire that once supported the plaster. "We should have it fixed, and all of the statues repainted," Mom said. But we never did. Instead, I turned the cow's bad ear to the back of the nativity scene, no better then than now at embracing an idea I know to be true: If cracks and flaws mattered that much, God wouldn't allow them anywhere near his Son. Not then. Not now.
I was much older before I was smart enough -- or perhaps willing -- to concede there is no proof that lowly barnyard animals kept Baby Jesus warm. But I cling to the belief nonetheless; it is a mirror into my mother's gentle and unshakeable faith. While she was able to accept that God let the mother of his child labor outside in the cold and dark night, she has always been steadfast in her belief that he was careful to make sure there were warmth and love as well. It's why God can complete her, and why she has never been - could never be - anything other than a mother.
For most of her 86 years, she has been putting socks on little feet, wiping away tears, sleeping in a chair until everyone came home, and cooking large meals for children, the harshest and most ill-mannered food critics on the planet. By most of the world's standards, my mother has done nothing of any importance. Except in the eyes of God the one whom Leonard Bernstein once called "the simplest of all."
Mother Theresa thought none of us could do great things, only small things with great love. My fear is I will never do either. Especially at this time of year, I long to turn the clock back, to feel more anticipation and less exhaustion on Christmas Eve, to peer inside the stable and make sure everyone is in the right place, to bring back the people who used to open my drugstore gifts and treasure them as if they were pearls of great price.
No one does Christmas better than 5-year-olds, and so having children of my own has been a blessing in that way, too. For them there is no disbelief. No complacency. No bottomless lists of tasks. They even wear greed better than the rest of us.
Christmas Eve has always been the apex of my extended family's celebration, and still is. Only after years of heated debate did all of my siblings and I finally relent and agree to find a venue other than our childhood home in order to give my mother some respite and all of us more room. Five years ago, the festivities took place at my house. Grandkids on the floor opening packages. My 4-year-old daughter, Grace, at the feet of my father. From my place at the kitchen sink, I noticed he was shivering. I put a blanket over him in a gesture that has reminded me many times since how ironic and cyclical life can be.
That was the last time my father was in my house. A few months later, he was gone. He was silently and gravely ill that night. Frightened, no doubt, and in unspeakable pain. But he came for the children - old and young. And on Christmas Eve, in my home, he found warmth and love.
Listener-Commentator Mary Burich is director of corporate communications at the Delaware North Companies.
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