December 19, 2023 // Diocese

Holiday Traditions: Readers Share Fond Memories of Christmas Past

During Advent in 2021, Pope Francis spoke of the importance of the symbols and traditions of the Christmas season and the role they play in bringing us closer to the Christ Child in the manger on that first Christmas. These symbols – especially Nativity scenes and decorated Christmas trees, he said – “bring us back to the certainty that fills our hearts with peace, to the joy of the Incarnation, to God who becomes familiar: He lives with us, He gives a rhythm of hope to our days. The tree and the Nativity scene introduce us to the typical Christmas atmosphere that is part of the heritage of our communities: an atmosphere of tenderness, sharing, and family intimacy. … Let us allow ourselves to be enveloped by the closeness of God, this closeness that is compassionate, that is tender; enveloped by the Christmas atmosphere that art, music, songs, and traditions bring to our hearts.”

With this spirit in mind, Today’s Catholic asked readers to share their fondest Christmas memories. The responses, found below, will fill you with nostalgia and warm your hearts.

From everyone at Today’s Catholic, we wish you a merry Christmas, and we hope sharing memories from readers might become one of our own Christmas traditions.

A Shared Christmas

I appreciate getting your publication. I was born in rural northeast North Dakota (close to Manitoba) back in 1933. We lived a quarter of a mile from a village of 60 people. When I was a senior in high school, every boy except one was on our basketball team. (We only had 11 boys in high school.) I’ve always been a Catholic, although my mother was a good Lutheran all her life. Even though my dad was Catholic and my mother was Lutheran, I never heard them disagreeing. I can remember one Christmas Eve when my dad and I went to our village Lutheran Church at 8 p.m. with Mom, and at midnight, she came with Dad and me for Midnight Mass.

Six years ago, I thought this up:

If Dad gives us a message … take heed.

A message of things to come.

A message that one be brave and follow the path He will pave.

      – Robert Flanagan

Christmas Blessings

My special memories of our Christmas celebrations began in the late 1940s and continue to the present. We put up our Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving. I have two Nativity sets. One from my dad and mom, and one from me. We opened presents on Christmas Eve. For supper, we had homemade oyster soup. We had dozens of homemade cookies, oranges, grapes, and nuts to crack the old-fashioned way. I have two sisters and one brother.

I carried this tradition into my marriage of 52 years. Mass on Christmas Day was very special to us. My children, Angela and Douglas, always looked forward to seeing the large Nativity scene and all the beautiful flowers. Jim and I now have five grandchildren – Harmony, Ben, Ivy, C.J., and Tanner. Also, one great-great grandson, Swayer. My husband Jim and I have been blessed.

– Caroline Patrick

Together for the Holidays

This picture might tell what Christmas meant to me. My husband was 86 years old when he died on January 6, 2016. As you can see, my family is always together for holidays. I have 9 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren. I have a grandson who died at 29 and a daughter at 53 from cancer.

I’m now 91 and the only living from our 11 children. I belong to Our Lady of Good Hope, and Father Mark Gutner is the Pastor. For my age, I’m in very good health. I always went to daily Mass, but now I don’t drive. On Sundays, my daughter takes me to church. On Thanksgiving Day, we were all here to celebrate and thank God for the wonderful lives we have. God bless you.

– Patricia Kohaut

A Christmas Lineup

One of our favorite traditions we have is to line the grandchildren up oldest to youngest and take a photograph! Also, they sing a Christmas carol before opening presents.

– Tom and Judy Burmeister

My Nativity Set

Born in 1937, I entered first grade at Most Holy Name of Jesus Elementary School in Pittsburgh in September of 1943. As Christmas time appeared in the school, I quickly learned what a Nativity set included: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, some shepherds, sheep, perhaps a cow and donkey, and three kings. At that time, the tradition of our family was to put up our Christmas tree the day before Christmas, so I discovered on Christmas Eve that our Nativity set consisted of Jesus, Mary, and a cow – all of which came with my dad from his family. They were mismatched pieces and family treasures, and they held a special place under the tree.

As World War II interrupted trade in such items, there were no pieces to buy that would match anything we had. As a blue-collar family, we had no money to buy the expensive, more complete sets available. And so, these treasures remained our Nativity set until I was 13 years old. That Christmas season, my aunt, who lived with my grandmother two blocks away, brought home a whole Nativity set that she had bought in downtown Pittsburgh. It had a cardboard stable with Jesus, Mary, Joseph, a donkey, and a cow. The shepherd, some sheep, and three kings were pasted on an extension that folded neatly up and into the stable. The statues were stationed in such a way that the external ones matched the empty spaces of the internal ones. It looked like a cardboard box when folded. I was so in awe of my aunt’s Nativity set that I had her buy one for me with the money I had received as a birthday gift that November. The new Nativity set was placed under the tree, but the old, humble treasures still had a place there, as well.

In 1967, I moved to Fort Wayne to teach at IPFW, but the Nativity sets stayed in Pittsburgh with my parents where I spent Christmas until they moved here in 1982. Somehow, the mismatched treasures never made the move. The house had been sold as if my mother were coming to Fort Wayne for a holiday, and she perhaps thought she needn’t bring both sets with her and instead chose the one that I, her son, had paid for rather than the one that had come from the Friedel family. My completely furnished three-bedroom house meant that there simply wasn’t room for everything, and only a few special items could come with my parents.

But this tale of my bond with the greatest symbol of Christmas now takes a turn. For the next 24 years – nearly a quarter century – that Nativity set was under my tree until 2006, when I spent Christmas Eve in Pittsburgh at my former neighbors’ house. As an activity, we built log cabins out of a small milk carton, pretzels, and oyster crackers. When Christmas was packed away in January of 2007, the Nativity set was packed with the log cabin, as it was a treasure as well. Then, in 2008 and 2009, I spent Christmas in my Florida home and did not have the Nativity set with me. Preparing for Christmas in 2010, the Nativity set was opened and … wow! Two years had passed since it had been out of the box, and it was covered in mold. It was absolutely devastating! The moldy cardboard stable was unusable, and I immediately discarded it after dislodging the statues from the cardboard. After 60 years of living under my Christmas tree, the statues had to stay. When I cleaned off the mold, the paint, too, came off. Not being an artist, I looked at the color they had left and took the easy and inexpensive solution: I bought a set of markers and colored the statues as closely as I could to what they had been.

Replacing the stable with one of an appropriate size took a couple of years. Now, in 2023, it sits proudly under my tree, 80 years after I discovered what a Nativity Set should contain. Jesus, never having been painted, continues to look as good as He did those many years ago – indeed, just as do His teachings and Spirit.

My hope is that He is honored by the care He has received through the years.

– Art Friedel

Christmas Choir

I still enjoy the time I sang in the Christmas Eve children’s choir at Most Precious Blood as an eighth grader. This would have been in 1978.

– Richard Fletcher

The Magic of Midnight Mass

My favorite Christmas memory is going to Midnight Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception with my family, and then, when I was a freshman in high school, joining the Cathedral choir and singing at Midnight Mass. It was always so beautiful.

– Linda Manske Psota

‘Happy Birthday’ to Jesus

We have had a birthday cake for Baby Jesus for decades. Each candle has a tag with the handwritten names of the grandchildren. We sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus, and each grandchild extinguishes his or her candle. The youngest grandchild places Baby Jesus into His manger next to a porcelain statue of our Blessed Mother as we sing. This tradition began, as far as I know, by Agnes Van Gessel, my grandmother.

– Sarah Walter

Sneaky Santa

My favorite memory is from when I was a child. After we ate dinner at my grandparents’ house, my grandfather would take us out hunting for Santa, but we could never catch him. By the time we made it back to their house, we would have just missed Santa, who had delivered all our Christmas gifts!

– Joyce Harber Urban

A Lofty Memory

Singing traditional Christmas carols in the choir loft since youth. I miss it.

– Miranda Dale

The Crosier House

One of my favorite childhood memories is going to Midnight Mass at the Crosier House. It was just beautiful! They always had a huge tree by the stairs you went up to go to church. Afterwards, Brother Gene would come to our house, and we would have lots of good food! Of course, I’m sure I fell asleep very soon after we got home.

– Virginia Simpson

My Favorite Mass

Going to Midnight Mass. It has and always will be my favorite Mass of the year. If I’m unable to attend, there always seems to be something missing from the Christmas season. Then, as a child, when I got older, we would come home and open gifts.

– Jenni Derrow-Stefanko

Best Day of the Year

There were eight of us under 10 years old. The Christmas tree was put on top of the television to stay out of reach of little hands. On Christmas morning, it seemed like the entire living room was filled with toys. We went to Mass and couldn’t wait to get home to play with everything. Aunts and uncles from out of town stopped over to visit. It was the best day of the year.

– Mary Keefer

Polish Traditions

Throughout my childhood growing up in a Polish American home, Christmas Eve memories stand out. The youngest child, my sister, would look out on cold December skies to spot the first star and alert the family when spotted. That was our cue to sit at the table with an extra place set in case a stranger would come – maybe Christ himself. The table was laden with a dozen meatless foods – a dozen to symbolize the Apostles.

The oldest man, my father, would say a prayer and share a Christmas wafer, oplatek, with each of us, with a wish for “health, wealth, happiness, and a crown of gold in heaven.” We each in turn would share the wafer and our good wishes with everyone at the table. It was hard not to see tears in my father’s eyes as he looked at the abundance before us.

As I grew older, I began to understand my father’s emotion. He was born in America but grew up in a small village in Poland in the 1920s and 1930s. His parents’ small family farm barely produced enough to survive; often, the only food was potatoes. He told us often there would barely be enough for his parents, while the children, 10 or more as years went by, went to bed hungry. The parents had to eat so they could work the farm; that was understandable, but that didn’t relieve the hunger pangs.

After eating, we would gather to sing kolendy, Polish Christmas carols, and some American carols, as well. By 9 p.m., we were getting ready for Midnight Mass. By 10 p.m., the church was full as the choir sang one carol after another. Then the joyous Mass!

The evening always carries a special significance for the blessings Our Lord brought to our lives.

– Patricia Lehman

The Birth of Christ

When my kids were small, I baked a cake and decorated it with sprinkles. We lit a candle on top and sang “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. I loved watching their little faces light up. It also brought me to tears when I saw my children kneeling before the Nativity in prayer on their own.

– Terri Bonbrake

Gathered Together

One of my favorite Christmas traditions began when I was a small child. Our family would get to open one gift from under the tree. Our parents would generally select the gift to be opened because it contained a new dress, homemade matching scarf, mittens, and hat, or a new shirt or tie for my brothers that could be worn to Midnight Mass at St. Michael the Archangel in Waterloo. Once married, we combined the tradition of gathering on Christmas Eve at my husband’s mom and dad’s house who lived just a few blocks from Queen of Angels, where his family attended. Therefore, it was easy to carry the tradition my family had begun all those years ago by gathering to celebrate Midnight Mass together.  When our children were very small, we used to have to arrive at least an hour early so that we could get a seat and not have to stand through the entire Mass. It was so beautiful being able to listen to the carols that were sung and played by the very talented musicians during the time of waiting. Our children are all grown and live thousands of miles away, but we still enjoy the tradition of going to Midnight Mass at Queen of Angels and listening to the beautiful music that is played ahead of time.

– Anita Senesac

Christmas Generosity

My favorite Christmas memory was at Midnight Mass when the Holy Spirit moved me to share the generosity that my patrons on my mail route had afforded that year. After the Mass had ended, I asked Father Vankempen if he knew of anyone who was in need from the parish. A name and address were given, and as I was leaving church, the Holy Spirit prompted me to go there immediately.

When I arrived, I was surprised there were lights on at that hour. I knocked, and a young woman answered the door. I handed her the envelope, and she burst into tears. She said, “Just an hour ago, I was praying to God, ‘Please help Christmas happen.’”

While I was walking back to my vehicle, I realized the moment the Holy Spirit spoke to me at Midnight Mass was in fact the moment the young woman was petitioning God.

This was more than 25 years ago when the Holy Spirit became very real to me, and each time I remember it, I am filled with the love of God.

– Patrick Kelker

‘Poofel Dust’

I remember the excitement of my brothers and sisters more than 60 years ago when the lights on the family Christmas tree began to shine bright. That year was special ,as the lights on the tree were blinking off and on, off and on. We had never seen this before! In our great excitement, our dad told us it was a special treat from Santa, as he sprinkles “poofel dust” over them, which causes them to turn off and on constantly. To this day, all my family remembers the wonder of “poofel dust.”

– Father Dave Voors

A Tasty Treat

Eating sour cherries at my Grandma and Grandpa Kimes’ house.

– Lisa Emrick

Honoring Loved Ones

My father passed away on December 18, 2003, at the age of 83. Since then, his adult children with family, along with our mom, have gotten together as a family on a Saturday closest to that day to celebrate his life. Each year, first we gather at St. Adalbert Church in South Bend for a Mass said in his honor. Afterward, we would continue the celebration by having dinner at one of our homes. This tradition continues to this day, but now it celebrates the lives of both parents, as well as a younger brother who departed from this earth a couple of months ago. In this busy world, it is so important that we have traditions that allow us to reflect, celebrate, and enjoy family.

– Paul Kowalski

St. Elizabeth Carolers

A few years ago, our St. Elizabeth Ann Seton family began a tradition of Christmas caroling in the nearby neighborhoods during the Third and Fourth Weeks of Advent and then again on Epiphany. After caroling, we go back to our parish hall to warm up with hot cocoa, cookies, and fellowship.

– Jennifer Engquist

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