Posted by: Maryann McCullough | December 1, 2013

Story for December 2013

This is not a new story, but it feels right to share it at this time. I just finished watching the evening news and with all that is transpiring in our world, the focus of the news was Black Friday, including the newly designated almostBlack Thursday. Economists were evaluating and crunching the numbers. Shoppers were rejoicing over their bargains or displaying their battle scars – some already gearing up for cyber Monday. Just the listening and the watching made me grow tired. So I went back to a different place from very long ago…

 

A BLACK AND WHITE CHRISTMAS

 

Ours, the Shanahan home  had been one that knew how to celebrate and all the things that formed Christmas memories were there to form mine. There was family, as well as aunts and uncles and friends, and eggnog and a beautiful tree and Midnight Mass and good smells coming from the oven and Bing Crosby and presents. With nine children, even modest gifts would have made an impressive pile under a tree. But in a home geared to celebration, the gifts were more of a “Good measure, pressed down, running over” nature.

So it may seem strange or ungrateful for me to speak of my most special Christmas as my first Christmas away from home. I remember (and a mother now myself, can now understand) my mother’s response when I foolishly told her how absolutely beautiful and meaningful it was -“the best Christmas ever!”

What led to this very unique and special Christmas was a decision I had made the previous year to join the Sinsinawa Dominican community. And while this decision closed some doors for me, it opened other portals into experiences I will never forget. And Christmas was one of those. But to put Christmas into context you need to know about Advent.

In the convent, Advent was a very purple kind of time. No Christmas carols were heard, no Christmas decorations were hung, no celebrations, no baking of cookies, no shopping, (and the hardest one) no letters from home. It was a quiet time of, not penance really, but anticipation.

When Christmas Eve came, the murals portraying Old Testament prophecies we postulants had been working on were hung throughout the halls; Christmas trees appeared and were decorated in a matter of hours. The entire convent was transformed in a day – and a busy day it was!  Certainly the juxtaposition of the austere waiting time with the sudden celebration of Christmas helped make it so memorable.

 After evening prayers, each sister retired for the evening. And then, at 11:30b.m.,  on the brink of Christmas, the “Angels” came. In truth they were the novices, resplendent in their white habits and white veils awakening the community with the most beautiful singing, calling us to midnight Mass. We dressed quickly and made our way in silence to the chapel. When we entered through darkened hallways we found the chapel ablaze with candlelight. (“And a light shall shine in the darkness…”) Our chaplain, carrying the life-size statue of the infant Christ, was the last to enter.  We sang for the first time of a silent night and a little town in Bethlehem.

Later in the day we each received the mail that had been sent and held during Advent. So, the “opening” part of Christmas, familiar from my past, was a part of my Dominican life as well.

Any gifts we postulants gave to each other or our families were handmade. From those early years, I remember the Christmas story I wrote and illustrated for my brothers and sisters, the hand puppets made from wheat paste and sawdust, and the hand-painted twelve days of Christmas figures that every year since have hung from my family’s dining room chandelier.

Replicating the serenity of my early “black and white” holidays is impossible in the real world (Imagine attempting to avoid Christmas carols during December!), but I do treasure the memories of my first Christmas away from home.

            And in many ways their memory has influenced the way that I (and my family) celebrate Christmas out in the real world.

For I now have a family of one husband and three sons and that does make a difference. We all agree that Jesus was not born to increase the fourth quarter profits of Walmart or The Gap. So when our sons moved beyond Santa we began to have relatively mall-free Christmases. We gave each other “days”- lunch and THE holiday movie of the year, breakfast followed by a trip to the bookstore, a family portrait with a print for each of us. Generally some money was spent but it was the time we spent together that was important. For friends and extended family, I wrote, or baked, or knitted, or painted. Habits die hard and it just didn’t feel like a real gift if my hands hadn’t been a part of it.

            Of course, our family holidays are not like my first Christmas away from home. The serenity is diminished, the laughter enhanced. The mother I now am has greater understanding of the hurt I caused by recounting such a wonderful Christmas away from home and family. Maybe this story doesn’t do it justice. Maybe you just had to have been there. Obviously, my husband and three sons attest to my having left that way of live. But memories of those Christmases from my black and white period are still wonder-filled and have made a difference in each Christmas that has followed.

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Responses

  1. I remember that Christmas at the Mound very vividly. You described it so well. And you sum up the beautiful spirit of Christmas that is so meaningful.
    Thank God for our Christmas memories and blessings.

  2. I always cherish the feelings of our Mound Christmas. You refreshed my mind with your great details.


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