COLUMN: Memories of Christmases past

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Nestled not in a snug bed but behind a desk as the wind swirled snow Sunday night, I found myself yearning for an old-fashioned Christmas. I’m not that old, so I can’t remember what it was like at Christmastimes long ago. I can remember my mom talking about years when she received a few clothes, candy, fruit and a small toy. I suppose back then Christmas was more about faith and certainly family. It’s still the same today, but sadly, less than it was in previous generations.

Maybe it’s just natural as one ages to think back to Christmases past and to romanticize about how perfect those times seemed. The realities of life were, of course, beyond me then. I didn’t have to worry about paying bills or a job. Alas, responsibilities don’t always help our celebrations.

Some of those wonder-filled times are still within my reach, indeed as they are for nearly all of us. All we have to do is set our minds to putting the true spirit of Christmas ahead of buying things and decorating everything in lights and garland.

There’s more than enough time under the sun to do what we want. Though busy, I’ll be the first to admit I can find times to do the things I really want, even if it means working harder.

I cherish holidays past, of Christmas Eves in my grandparents’ Leopold basement, filled with laughter and merriment. I can remember my grandfather, a thin man whose face widened with a smile when around loved ones or when telling a story.

I can remember Midnight Mass, back when it really took place at midnight, with German carols and a manger by the altar that inspired awe.

Today, many churches move services up a few hours. But a sacrifice of a little sleep, in my mind at least, separates holidays from other days and makes them what their name requires: “holy” and different.

I will go to my grave with memories from my teenage years of an old woman crying two pews behind me one Midnight Mass as the church choir performed German carols.

I knew scarcely a word of German then but remembered the title of the song, “Es is ein Ros entsprungen.” I’ve never forgotten her tears or the opening words of the song, which I etched in my mind from a tattered hymnal that in the 1980s still had to be nearly a century old.
I never took the time to ask her about the song before she died a few years later and I’ve often pondered the reasons why the song was so special to her. Perhaps it was a favorite of her parents.

Or it might have reminded her of her childhood, of her own Christmases past.

I listen to that song every Christmas season, usually alone in the office at work. I’ve come to memorize its verses and while I have not heard it sung live for many years, I suspect some people may know its words or remember hearing it. Maybe there are churches that still sing it. If you want to hear it, go to YouTube and type in the name. Here is the first verse in German and an English translation.

Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, aus einer Wurzel zart. Wie uns die Alten sungen,von Jesse war die Art. Und hat ein Blümlein bracht; mitten im kalten Winter, wohl zu der halben Nacht.

A rose has sprung up, from a tender root. As the old ones sang to us, its lineage was from Jesse. And it has brought forth a floweret in the middle of the cold winter, right upon midnight.

The rosebud that I mean, of which Isaiah told, is Mary, the pure, who brought us the floweret. At God’s immortal word, she has borne a child, remaining a pure maid who makes us blessed.

The floweret, so small, that smells so sweet to us, with its clear light, dispels the darkness. True man and true God, he helps us from all trouble, saves us from sin and death.

“Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” isn’t the only Christmas tune I listen to as Christmas nears. I’m fond of Stille Nacht (Silent Night) and the Web has a wonderful selection of performances, including one by the Dresdner Kreuzchor, a boys choir in Dresden.

During Advent, I try to read portions of Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets. Among my favorites is Isaiah 9.

In these verses, the biblical writer encourages us that there will come better times and that all of us will be be called out of darkness and shall see the rods of our oppressors smashed. We shall rejoice as people do when dividing plunder or at the time of the harvest. I’ve never divided plunder but I know the feelings of joy that come at harvest.

Some of my most cherished Christmas Eve memories have been solitary drives to local churches New Year’s night for photos.

Though I get together with family on Christmas Eve, I sometimes spend the daytime hours alone, at work for a time and then touring the countryside. Nature’s beauty is stark but beautiful during winter, from the evergreen pines and cedars to the beautiful brown beech leaves that contrast against an otherwise drab hardwood forest.

I send out only a few holiday cards and instead try to make my greetings verbal.

If I’m unable to see you in person before Christmas approaches, I hope your holiday is a blessed one and that the new year 2011 brings nothing but welcome tidings.