My family has expanded to the point where they are simply too many people to buy Christmas presents for. So we’ve decided that, from now on, gifts will be purchased only for the children. Partly we’re doing this to reject the grotesque materialism of the holiday season. But mostly, the economy is crashing around us, and nobody wants to go broke buying gifts for adults who don’t need any more knickknacks.
I’m curious if this next generation of children will be subjected to the same rules and rituals that the cousins and I grew up with. At first, the system was inflexible: first came Midnight Mass, then the presents. The youngest kids required naps, often in church, but we were all awake at 2:00 am to open gifts. It helps that my family is composed overwhelmingly of night people. Successive years of whining pushed up the gift-opening ceremony, to the point where we exchanged presents around 10:00 pm and enjoyed them before heading off to church.
In any case, before any gifts were opened, Aunt #1 always asked us to explain who Mary and Joseph were, why they were on the road, what the innkeeper said, and whose savior arrived in the manger. It was a study group for Christianity 101, and Aunt #1 filled in the blanks and embellished the more miraculous elements. She did this every year –- the same quiz with the same answers. But it was vital to her that we understand the story of Christmas. The youngest cousins gave the bulk of the answers. The older ones hung back, like wily veterans who had given their peak performances long ago.
The presents were then handed out, with the accompanying rule that everybody had to have at least one gift before anybody opened anything. Each year, we gripped our presents in crazed anticipation until the last person received a gift. Only then, when it was verified that everybody had a present in his or her hands, did the shredding begin.
The sound of wrapping paper being ripped to death filled the room, and exclamations cascaded around the house over shouts of thanks. It was a crazed wrenching open of boxes and flinging of ribbons. It was a blur of hands and shower of sudden confetti over tumbling objects. And every now and then, mixing with a bellow of “Cool!” or the rapid tittering of the authentically thrilled, came the sound of young girls quite literally squealing with delight.
Then it was off to Midnight Mass. We stomped off snow as we entered the church. The holy water felt odd on our reddened faces, and we didn’t unbutton our bulky coats until we found a pew to take over, because we always had to sit together.
Our church was lit up with hundreds of candles, and the band gave revved-up acoustic meringue versions of “Cascabellas” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” The mass started with a processional of parishioners dressed as the three wise men, Mary and Joseph, and assorted shepherds and angels. Usually, a neighborhood teen mom’s baby represented Jesus. For some reason, a knocked-up Latina’s infant was often the default symbol for the Christian messiah in the annual service.
After the mass, we drudged into the bitter cold, gave final hugs and holiday blessings, and went home to sleep until noon.
Today, we more or less skip the mass. Sometimes, the celebration gets going late because we have to account for work schedules and in-laws and other details that we could skip when most of us were under twelve and could fit into one car. And some of us won’t even be there. We live in different states or even different countries now.
Still, I hope that at some point, Aunt #1 will call a halt to our games or conversations or gorging or whatever we’re doing. Then she will sit in front of the tree, call the children over to her, and ask them to tell her the story of Christmas.