Jeannie Ewing
Freelance Writer
December 18, 2018 // Diocese

Christmas memories

Jeannie Ewing
Freelance Writer

A Christmas journey of hope and peace

For Kristine DiScala, a parishioner at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Fort Wayne, Christmas is about the journey. “Every year for Christmas, my brother and parents and I would drive to the middle of Kansas and stay with my grandparents for about a week,” she began. Her family spent the weeks beforehand getting their own Christmas preparations complete, such as sending cards, baking, decorating and wrapping gifts. It was a sacred time of year for them, a time in which they set aside to spend with family – and without interruption.

Once they were on the road, DiScala felt an incredible peace about the journey. There was hope and anticipation about seeing her grandparents and extended family. “We never went on expensive family vacations,” she noted. “When you don’t live where your extended family lives, you make it a priority to be with them during the holidays and when it matters most.”

DiScala remembers her maternal grandparents’ hospitality and generosity. They would stay up and await the arrival of her family, even if it was very late in the evening — sometimes past midnight. Their excitement matched that of their granddaughter’s and her brothers and her parents. DiScala recalled the little things that made their stay go smoothly and set the tone for a relaxing and enjoyable time together.

“While we stayed with them, my grandparents would make our favorite cookies and meals. We knew they were so grateful for us taking the long road trip out to see them,” she mused. “My brother, who was a teen at the time, played guitar, and my grandpa would rent him an amp so that he could play his music for the family while we were together.” The simple, little things such as these were what made DiScala realize how much her grandparents loved her. “They were always present. They never multitasked and didn’t schedule anything the whole week we were there. We would just sit there and visit with them, read, talk, etc. Those were special memories for me.”

DiScala and her family also visited her paternal grandparents, who lived in the same small Kansas town her maternal grandparents did. She recalled how they helped form her faith in a very specific way. “They helped me develop a devotion to Our Lady. Though they died when I was young, I remember they talked so much about Mary and the saints, and we’d pray a rosary with them in the car,” she said. They also visited the grave sites of deceased family members together and would add fresh flowers while praying for the departed souls.

Those memories have made DiScala more intentional and conscientious about how she celebrates the holiday season. “If I remind myself that Advent isn’t the season about getting Christmas preparations done but rather a time of quiet and solitude, then I think more about Mary’s journey on the back of the donkey and how she prepared her heart to welcome Jesus, too.”

Small family, personal stories

Growing up in a small family with an older sister and his parents, David Eiserle, a member of St. Charles Borromeo, Fort Wayne, cherished Christmas, because it was a time of security and warmth – a time in which he was able to get to know each member of his family on a deeper level. “Christmas taught me about the importance of family,” he said. “Since we had such a small family, and most of the elder members are now gone, I got to know everyone on a more personal, intimate level than if we had 40 people gathered together.”

To Eiserle, Christmas was a cozy and safe feeling, a time of year in which he knew what to expect because of particular traditions and the flow of the holiday. He and his family would spend the night at his maternal grandfather’s house on Dec. 23, the adults doing most of the preparation for the Christmas Eve meal. “It was a German tradition to celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve,” he explained.

Christmas Eve morning welcomed a leisurely breakfast with lots of time to chat, laugh, wrap any last-minute gifts and set the table for a formal feast. “Grandpa was very traditional and wanted the meal to be fancy,” Eiserle added. The fine linens adorned the table, usually with a beautiful floral centerpiece as the focal point. Fine china and real silverware were always used, along with crystal wine glasses. “Grandpa taught my older sister and me how to properly set the table with different sized forks, spoons and knives,” he shared.

After the meal, the family would gather around the Christmas tree in the living room and the eldest male member of the family – at the time, his grandfather – would read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. “The biggest part of Christmas for me was having the focal point be on reading the Christmas story, which has always helped me remember why we have Christmas and what we are truly celebrating,” Eiserle added. It made all the fancy things their family did make sense in the reality that they were welcoming the King of kings into their homes and hearts. “But truly Christmas is about the simplicity of life, not the extravagance,” he noted.

Now that Eiserle is an adult, he spends more quality time with his parents, sister and his nieces than he believes he would have if he had not treasured those holiday gatherings as a child. He is grateful to spend leisurely time with his parents, just enjoying a meal together or watching a movie and talking about life, hardships and blessings.

He appreciates his family now more than ever before, because he sees them as interesting. “I realize now that my family are people who have real stories and are fun to be with,” he said.

Eiserle believes that Christmases past shaped him into the man he is today, both in celebrating the birth of Christ and in remembering the value of taking time to show his loved ones how much they mean to him. “Christmas brought us all together,” he concluded. “Those memories mean so much more to me now, because I know God gave me the gift of my family to love, just like He gave us the gift of Jesus.”

The best gift is being present to those we love

For many, Christmas has become a season of dread because the secular implication is that material gifts are preferred to the simpler gifts of one’s time, of a handmade card, of a conversation. For Claire Stuertzenberger, a member of St. Louis, Besancon, Parish in New Haven, memories of giving back to her elderly grandmother, even as a young girl, are paramount when she considers this time of year.

“When I was a kid, my Aunt Marilyn took me and all of my girl cousins to my [maternal] grandmother’s house so that we could help her decorate it and spend some time with her,” she remembered. “My grandma lived in Jay County, which was about an hour away from my house, so it was a road trip for us. I started going when I was about 8 years old and kept going every year until my grandma moved to Saint Anne’s [retirement community] about five years ago.”

Stuertzenberger and her female family members piled in her aunt’s vehicle and would anticipate the joy they were about to bring to their grandma. It was a time of laughter, as the girls would giggle while changing the lyrics to certain Christmas carols in order to pass the time in the car.

Once they arrived at their grandmother’s house, they would put up her artificial tree and help her decorate it with the lights and ornaments. Then they’d put up smaller decorations, such as her Nativity set, and head outside to complete the day with festive décor on her home’s exterior.

“While we were decorating,” said Stuertzenberger, “Grandma would linger around and watch us, just talking, and after we were finished, we’d hang out with her by watching Christmas movies, eating brownies and playing the piano while singing together.”

Stuertzenberger explained that the reason this memory is so special to her is that it set Christmas apart from the rest of the year. It was different, and they got to spend quality time

together as a family. Plus, she and her grandma have always had a special relationship. “I knew she was a faith-filled woman who attended daily Mass, which was a great example to me,” Stuertzenberger shared. “Even though I was young, it made a huge impression on me.”

Once her grandmother started losing her memory, Stuertzenberger’s mother and her siblings took turns driving to take care of her on a weekly basis. Stuertzenberger was able to spend time with her more frequently this way, which she appreciated. Today, she and her cousins visit their grandmother every Wednesday to pray the rosary with her at Saint Anne’s.

For Stuertzenberger, Christmas isn’t about what a person receives, but about what they give — making time to spend with family in order to create special memories and moments of laughter and love. “We’re celebrating Jesus as Emmanuel – “God with us” – and He is the best present we can receive. But Christmas is also about being present to the people God has given us to love. This time with my family is … a way for me to remind myself that this is a sacred time of year, and that there’s something special about this time,” she concluded.

‘Singing together reminds us to praise God’

St. Augustine of Hippo famously noted that “he who sings, prays twice.” For Father Daniel Whelan, parochial vicar at Our Lady of Good Hope Parish, Fort Wayne, music has been an integral part of his memories surrounding both Christmases past and those of the present day. The sights, smells and sounds picked up by the senses and integrated into memories are what, to him, make Christmas a special time of celebrating the gift of family and of the birth of Jesus.

“One of my favorite memories,” Father Whelan explained, “began when I was in about fifth grade and started playing the piano. During Christmastime, I’d begin playing favorite hymns and sacred music, and my four brothers and mom would gather around the piano for an impromptu singalong.” What began as a very informal, casual tinkering on the piano has become both a tradition and beloved memory in the Whelan family.

Father Whelan shared that, after that first occasion in fifth grade, each Christmas, the family would continue to gather together and sing their favorite songs of the season. “It was eventually expected,” he said, “and as my family would congregate around the piano, I’d sit down and play.”

One particular Christmas, Father Whelan’s older brother, who has seven children, decided to send different vocal parts, such as tenor and bass, ahead of time to different family members so that they could practice their singing before everyone came together to celebrate Christmas. The tradition has continued.

What makes this memory so special is that Father Whelan’s mother would harmonize and had “the most beautiful voice,” he said. Now that she is gone from earth, the Whelan family continues to incorporate memories of her by singing her favorite hymn, Silent Night, and reminiscing about years past when she would make Christmas candy while singing in the kitchen.

“Silent Night is such a tender hymn,” Father Whelan reflected. “Think about the verse, ‘’round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.’ I think it touched her heart as a mother with her own children and also as she pondered the birth of Jesus.” These fond memories engender love among Father Whelan and his family. He explained that “this is one of the messages of Christmas: about Jesus’ love for us.”

Father Whelan also shared that his Christmas memories of gathering with family members and singing songs about the birth of Jesus is something also done in Church, when voices are lifted in song to praise God. It was in the silence of listening to music, too, and in the glow of candles in his home that he’d remember that all people are supposed to be a reflection of Jesus as the light of the world — a world in darkness.

“The Christmas message is that people came and gathered in the front of the manger to worship and honor Jesus. They were singing God’s praises. In that darkness of Bethlehem, they were just grateful to be in the presence of Jesus as the light.”

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