Christmas and family. They seem to go together like salt and pepper. The crowds at airports and the traffic on the highways as Christmas approaches provides a visual reminder that people are eager to spend time with their loved ones during the holiday season. In fact, many of us seem to make extraordinary efforts to be with our families at this special time of year.
We all have our precious memories of Christmas celebrations from when we were young. Everyone in the family had a part to play. As the youngest of four children, two of my responsibilities growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, were retrieving boxes of Christmas decorations from an unheated attic and arranging the Christmas crib figures. Arranging the figures required a fair bit of expertise, as the camel had a twig for an artificial leg, and one of the wise men had a hole in his back. Imperfect, but loved and part of our family history.
The focus of it all was the Christmas Mass and then back home to open presents, sing carols and later in the day, Christmas dinner with all the trimmings including a specialty of my mother—bright red cinnamon apples around the turkey. The main actors in the event, of course, were Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Holy Family. Without them the whole activity was meaningless. What would Christmas be with an empty crib?
It is an interesting coincidence that my first parish assignment after ordination in 1961 was Sei Kazoku Kyokai, Holy Family Parish, in Japan. My last parish assignment overseas was Holy Family Parish, Labasa, Fiji.
My 43 years of overseas priestly ministry was bracketed, so to speak, by the Holy Family—not bad company with which to be associated. Throughout those years, Christmas celebrations differed from parish to parish, country to country. In Japan, perhaps 100 people out of 100,000 living in the area would participate in Midnight Mass, half of them visitors invited to the church for the first time. In Fiji, by contrast, often entire villages would join in the Eucharist which was almost always followed by a communal meal.
Families come in many shapes and sizes—nuclear families, extended families, faith families—but always it is the family at the heart of the Christmas celebration. While the celebrations can vary from place to place, family to family, together we joyfully celebrate the birth of the King. Our own memories and experiences of Christmases past are rooted in that wondrous event pictured in the Christmas cribs we see around us this year, even if the camel is lame and one of the wise men has to keep a low profile.
Fr. Charles Duster lives and works in Chicago, Illinois.
The article originally appears in the December 2010 issue of Columban Mission.