“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

                                        -Nephew Fred, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

Christmas has also always been my favorite time of year. More precisely, it’s Advent – the time leading up to Christmas – that I’ve enjoyed the most since I was a kid. Advent was full of possibility; there was the anticipation of what Christmas was going to be. What was I going to get, what could I give within my limited funds that the recipient might actually like, what would it all feel like?

Part of Advent was the Advent Wreath. It was made of evergreen boughs and laid flat on the table. Four candles stuck up out of it; each representing one of the weeks in December leading up to Christmas. Three were white and one was purple; the purple one was for Gaudette Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent. You’d light the candles at the start of dinner, say a prayer, and dig in to the food, hoping the candles wouldn’t fall over and set fire to the wreath and perhaps the table as well. Ah, Holiday cheer!

In 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired on TV. The following year, How the Grinch Stole Christmas debuted which was even better. (I am, of course, referring to the TV special created by Chuck Jones and narrated by Boris Karloff and not the bloated movies since made.) I have both on Blu-ray and they continue to be a part of my lead-up to Christmas every year. Both are very much a part of my own personal Christmas.

We also had an Advent calendar. For those who don’t know, these are large cards usually with the picture of the Nativity scene on it and windows set in it that can be opened, revealing a picture of a toy or a piece of candy or a portion of a story. Ours had the Nativity story from Luke. The windows were numbered from 1 to 24, going from December 1st to Christmas Eve. That’s when the whole Advent schtick climaxed. We didn’t use the one that had chocolates behind each window because I think my Mom instinctively knew they’d never make to December 24th. They probably wouldn’t have made it to the 3rd and I most likely would have been the reason. I was only as patient during Advent as I was forced to be.

Part of our family Advent ritual was to go downtown to State Street, that Great Street, and see the Christmas windows at the big stores, especially Marshall Fields. They always did up Christmas in a grand style and, if you want, you can take a peek here

Back then, the Christmas shopping season started the day AFTER Thanksgiving. No running out on Thanksgiving dinner to be the first in line. No Black Friday sales in the middle of August. (Okay, I exaggerate but only for effect.) 

Church did play a large part in the holiday for us; how could it not? It was literally right across the street. I grew up in the shadow of St. Jerome’s. My brother and I were part of the boys’ choir and that meant every Christmas, we stayed up and sang at Midnight Mass. If I recall correctly, we had to be back for the 10 AM performance. . .err . . .service on Christmas day itself. In between the two we had to have sleep, breakfast and, before we went to bed, our own family Christmas ceremony.

This was largely a production of my mother as such things were wont to be. It started with us kids gathered on the stairs going up, youngest at the bottom, oldest at the top. The youngest carried the Baby Jesus for the nativity scene in the creche and we were all supposed to walk down behind her, singing a hymn reverently, until Baby Jesus joined the Holy Family. We were decidedly NOT the Holy Family and, the older we got, the more we resisted the Procession until we outright refused.

We then would sit together and share reading The Night Before Christmas followed by Dad, taking his assigned part, reading the Cratchit dinner scene from A Christmas Carol. It wasn’t his idea but he was pretty good at it and it was my favorite part of the goings-on. I think that’s where my love for the Dickens’ classic began. Milk and cookies were left out for Santa (with the hope that neither I nor the dog would nibble them) and those of us going to bed went to bed and those of us going to Midnight Mass prepared for that.

Morning came and we hit the presents. There was the thrill of acquisition always followed the little sadness that we never got everything we asked for and wanted. Like most things, the anticipation was greater than the realization.

We had one more shot at the brass ring – dinner at Grandma’s house and then gifts afterward. We didn’t have to go over the river and through the woods; we simply walked next door. The food was great and the loot was pretty good but, after that, Christmas was done except for the leftovers and taking out the trash and breaking in the new toys and reading the new books and wearing the inevitable new clothes.

There was always next year. Hey, I was raised a Cubs fan. You live on possibility and that engenders hope.

Merry Christmas to you all. Happy holidays. Io Saturnalia.