Each passing year, I find the Christmas season more packed with meaning and emotion of every kind. This was no less true this year as I savored the anticipatory days leading up to Christmas, desiring to take it all in slowly and purposefully.
This mindset led me straight into a mini-meltdown the evening of Dec. 23, however, the night of our traditional Salonen dinner and gift exchange, which happens just before a larger celebration with extended family.
The dishes hadn’t yet been cleared when the kids began hovering around the tree sorting through packages — some freshly placed there — and, to my consternation, doling them out.
“Hold on!” I blurted out while clenching unused silverware I’d just pulled from the table. “Could we clean up a bit first?”
I knew the kids had been itching to get at the packages that had been teasing them from below the boughs for days now. But everything in me yelled “Halt!”
More and more we seem wont to rush from one season to the next, not pausing long enough to truly appreciate the gifts that have just been placed in our arms. This can lead to such an emptiness and letdown later.
Noting my upset-mama look, the kids returned the gifts temporarily so I could snap a few photos of our full, pretty tree with the most willing participants posing in front.
The kitchen now back in order, we settled in to enjoy time together, reveling in the chance to share happy secrets we’d been storing up, and warming our bellies with belabored sips of mint hot chocolate.
The next evening, just before midnight on Dec. 24, we all gathered again in our finest Christmas attire at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck, where a rare, full moon beckoned us into a poinsettia-bedecked sanctuary.
Behind the altar, gold and red banners twirled, and one large, lit Christmas tree with a jeweled star dangling from the ceiling above kept our eyes mesmerized as choral melodies awakened our souls.
“Why rush any of this?” I thought. Surely, the cold world will still be waiting when it’s all over.
I’m not alone in my sentiments. Our church’s liturgical calendar shows the Christmas season technically beginning Dec. 25 but extending through the baptism of our Lord on Jan. 10.
Even as the yearly calendar flips ahead and Christmas trees are pitched to the curb, we can cling to the richness of this season. In fact, I’m still slowly unwrapping the intangible presents, including these treasures:
The gift of words: I could spend months meditating on Bishop David Kagan’s homily from Christmas Eve, words borrowed from St. Ambrose, who lived in the fourth century. According to Kagan, St. Ambrose once defined Christmas as “the kiss of God on the lips of unworthy man,” and the incarnation as “humility exalted. It is life. It is love. It is the love of life, and it is the life of love.”
The gift of new life: No one lived this reality more than Michelle Duppong, who succumbed to complications from cancer at age 31, dying at her family’s farm near Glen Ullin, N.D., on Christmas Day. Her Caringbridge journal bears witness to this young lady’s big faith, which lovingly attracted many to the Lord throughout her earthly life.
Michelle’s funeral took place a year to the day after her disconcerting diagnosis. At the funeral vigil, her priest friend, the Rev. Nathan Cromly, called Michelle’s entire life “a proclamation pointing toward heaven.”
I texted her sister, Lisa Gray, of Fargo, the day after her passing, “The Lord comes as a child, and Michelle leaps into his gentle arms.” What a gift, the gift of living with God and love forever.
The gift of illness: In a nursing home in Bismarck, my friend’s mother-in-law, Delila Mayer, sits captive with Guillain-Barre syndrome, which has left her paralyzed from the neck down since June. And yet, when my sister and I visited her Dec. 26, she greeted us with a huge smile, a large crucifix draped around her neck, and zealous, hope-filled words about her wish to use her suffering to draw more souls to God. What a light.
The gift of hope: Pope Francis desires peace for our world, and has declared this the Year of Mercy, challenging us all to extend mercy in unlikely places. What a great challenge for the new year, to stay watchful for ways to live out our mercy big in this fresh year ahead.
The gift of music: On Christmas Day, 14 of our family members, ages 10 to 74, piled into a common room at the nursing home where my grandmother, Elizabeth Byrne, 101, has lived for the past several years. Encircling her, we sang Christmas carols with gusto and, later, gifted her with piano and flute melodies.
Just before midnight on Dec. 28, Grandma passed away peacefully in her sleep. What a blessing to realize we were sending Grandma into the next world with our heartfelt refrains resounding in her soul. Rest in peace, precious child of the King.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Jan. 2, 2016.]