What Pope Benedict XVI this week called "the exterior aspects that play upon our heartstrings" (General Audience, December 21, 2011) factors significantly in how each of us approaches the Christmas feast and the memories we hold onto as we age - memories of family gatherings, gifts given adn received, and cherished peopel and places, "the wonderful things we'll remember the rest of our lives," as the familiar song says.
Back when I was a mid-20th-century Baby Boomer kid, growing up in the Beautiful Bronx, Christmas mornign followed a set, somewhat predictable pattern, a ritual really. We kids got up, bright and early, and woke up the grown-ups. Thena ll of us went together intot he living room, lit the Christmas Tree, and immeidately dived into the abundant arrangement of presents so neatlya rranged under and aroudn the tree. Before long, there were gifts - and torn wrappings and ribbons - all over the place. After that, it was time to get dressed and go to Mass - 9:00 a.m. Children's Mass for us school-kids! After Mass, we had breakfast, then more time with our toys, before bundling up for the trek to my uncle's mansion for a traditonal Italian Christmas feast. (It was actually just a typical 1950s suburban home. But since my uncle was the only relative around well off enough actually to own his own home, it seemed like a mansion to us). a succession of subsequent extended-family gatherings filled out the holiday week, culminating in a traditonal arrancini dinner at our place on New Year's Day.
Times have changed since then, to be sure. For one thing, our sense of liturgical time has been impoverished by "Vigil" Masses the day before Sundays and holydays - above all on Christmas. In many places, Christmas Eve (actually often just late-afternoon) has replaced Christmas Day as the de facto holyday - as if we were all in a rush to get the religious part over with, leaving more time on Christmas Day for gift-giving and party-going.
Be that as it may, the general Chrisitmas Day routine remains for most people not all that different now from what it was then - visiting relatives and friends and giving gifts and receiving presents in return. Perhaps, some of those visits will not be as wonderful as we would wish - whther for the visitors or for those being visited. Not all the gifts will be appreciated either, and some will soon be returned to the store in search of somethign better, bigger, or brighter. Our post-modern Christmas can be a lot of work, and it can exhaust even the hardiest reveler. And, with all the emphasis on partying and consuming, some folks inevitably get left out and end up feeling, if anything, even more lonely or more poor on Christmas that at any other time.
Even back then those Christmas Day family gatherings were often not quite all they purported to be. But who would have freely chosen to miss out on them?
Over time, my family Christmas gatherings got somewhat smaller, and the people around the dinner table began to vary more from year to year. Living alone, then at school, then alone again for four years in Wisconsin, I always looked forward to coming back "home for the holidays."
In 1981, my novitiaqte year interrupted that pattern as we priests and novices celebrated the feat together as a relgiious community. That too was probably an imperfect experience (as indeed every Christmas inevitably is), but the unique experience of celebrating the feast in a way that was coherent with my new vocation to religious life was precious then, and its memory retains a special glow even now.
With the single exceptiopn of one unhappy year in Michigan, I was "home for the holidays" again every Crhsitmas until my ordiantion to the priesthood in 1995. After that, I had to work on Christmas, and that has given the feast another new fell. Meanwhile my immediate family had mostly moved west, while came back to New York to work (and mroe recently to Knoxville). The routine now tends to be one of almost frenetic preparation, culminating in glorious Christmas Masses on Christmas night and Christmas morning. Then, by about 1:00 p.m. at the latest, it's effectivley all over! It's time to watch Christmas movies on TV, listen to Christmas carols, and just try to absorb it all at last!