Christmases Past

christmasespastBY Michael Mentzer

I never know when it will happen…I simply know that it will.

There have been plenty of times, I confess, that I told myself I didn’t care as much about Christmas as I once did…that it was not as meaningful or emotional or uplifting as it was 10 years ago, or 25 or 50.

I’ll drive from place to place or take a walk one day and it’s just like any other day, maybe even a bit more boring or drab.
Then it all changes. I don’t understand why. I’ve tried over the years to figure it out, but it’s beyond my mental and emotional abilities.

There were times I chalked up the changes in perception to lights and decorations, holiday music, the apprehension of little children for the Big Day, a more tolerant feeling in general about people, especially the ones who otherwise rub us the wrong way, and maybe the fact that people step out of character and let down their guard for a few days out of the year.

I admit that I don’t get it.

So I welcome it, whatever it may be, for however long it lasts.

Literary genius
Long ago, I reached the conclusion that Charles Dickens was a literary genius and that his book “A Christmas Carol” represented a masterpiece of messages that truly changed people’s lives, though it was not well received when it was published, and it took the passing of generations before it was acclaimed.

I welcome and relish Christmas Past, but admit the other two characters scare the breath out of me.

I see them in the news all the time in all sorts of ways and in all parts of the world. In a way I realize they’re somehow tied to the past, but they are so much more frightening in the Present moment and in the specter of what yet will come.

Christmas Past exudes a feeling of comfort and care and sometimes heartache and tears, but the uplifting kind, not the bitter variety. There is a simplicity in the Past that makes us think we understand it.

I’m not so sure…not sure how simple it was or how understandable it may have been.

But there is comfort in it.

Influential traditions
In all honesty, there are no outstanding, earthshaking, life-changing Christmas events in my life…wait, I take that back; there is one for sure.

There are plenty of little events though that have worked their magic on me.

One of them known and shared by my five brothers and sisters was the tradition in our family that no one could go downstairs on Christmas morning until Dad called us.

It never dawned on any of us back then how much sacrifice and work on their part went into that simple Christmas morning tradition.
One of my first memories of those mornings — probably when I was 4 or 5 — is the sound of Dad stoking the old coal furnace as heat banged and boomed its way through the ducts into the first floor. It took hours for heat to reach through the upstairs bedrooms.

Years later when the coal furnace no longer existed, the youngest in the family pointed to a circular mark on the oak woodwork in the dining room and wondered what it was.

Hardly anyone today would know that the circular outline is where a hand-cranked damper connected by chains to the furnace was located, and that our Dad was a master at making it coax heat from red fire-breathing chunks of coal into the house all winter long.

The people who now live in our family home have no clue. To them I’m sure it’s just an unfortunate mark on the beautiful woodwork which Dad refinished when he and Mom bought the house 66 years ago in the midst of the post-war baby boom.

Flashes of Christmas Past
Flashes of Christmas Past visit me in memories of walks to Midnight Mass, wingtip shoes, currant biscuits, solitary walks along Lake Monona and the Yahara River on Christmas afternoon (I could still walk that path with my eyes closed), a Live Nativity presentation in a barn, the strains of “Stille Nacht” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and a diamond ring promise to the woman I married 46 years ago.

For years, grade school through high school, Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve was a family tradition.

My younger brothers and sisters knew they were no longer, “little kids” when they were finally allowed to attend Midnight Mass.
In the early days we walked eight blocks back and forth to church. It seems almost impossible to me today, but we didn’t have a car, and never gave it a second thought.

The church at midnight always seemed hot and holy, bright with candles and carols, and spiced to the brim with the fragrance of incense so overwhelming it lingered in our clothes for hours.

On the walk home, I remember passing the homes and stores where I delivered the morning newspaper. I don’t remember snow in those days as much as I recall the vault of a bluish–black velvet sky, and twinkling stars much brighter than other nights…probably just my imagination.

Wingtip shoes
My Dad always wore wingtip shoes on Sundays, Christmas and Easter. The rest of the week he wore heavy leather boots at the factory where he worked.

He prized those wingtips and they shined, often because I shined them. He held me to a high standard, and when I became older my younger brother took over. We share a common bond tied by a seemingly simple task.

There are times after all these years that I think I may have walked in his shoes in a figurative sense as a father, grandfather, worker, homeowner.

But knowing his story better now that he’s gone, I realize that it’s difficult to truly walk in the shoes of almost anyone from the Greatest Generation.

Currant biscuits
At home after Mass, we sat around the dining room table in our usual places and savored homemade currant biscuits.

My Mom and our grandmother (Mom’s Mom) baked bread at least a couple times a week for the nine of us.

In those days we had currant biscuits only on Christmas. In reality they were no different from the normal biscuits they made every week, except that they had currants, like miniature raisins, in them. What made them truly special was the fact they were shared only after Midnight Mass.

For us, it was almost sacred in a fun and significant way. Those simple biscuits were like communion made by the women of our family in their own kitchen.

Live Nativity
Music always plays a role in memories this time of year. We’ve had the uplifting pleasure in recent years to witness the Live Nativity presentation at Villa Loretto in Mount Calvary.

The event is held in the barn with spectators packed into bleacher seats along the outer walls. The smells are earthy. Farm animals are featured. It is humbling and emotional to be there considering the message that is being sent.

I remember on one occasion catching an emotional glimpse of an old man in the audience singing “Stille Nacht,” and then dabbing his eyes with a red bandanna handkerchief. I wondered how many times he had sung that German-language version of “Silent Night,” as a boy and as a man, and how many years he had farmed in the Holyland, and what it all meant to him.

‘I’ll Be Home’
There is another song that has captured my consciousness in recent years. I’ve known it for years, but only recently has it drawn an emotional response.

It was first performed in 1943 in the midst of World War II as if an American soldier serving overseas were writing to his family about being ‘home for Christmas.’

It makes me think of historic Christmas battles at Trenton in the Revolutionary War, and World War II in the bloody Battle of the Bulge that helped to give birth to, and safeguard a nation and a way of life.

It seems so uncharacteristic to speak of war and battles in relation to peace and salvation.

It’s another aspect of the overall story that I don’t understand, but accept nonetheless.

I tend to think that what I’m comfortable with will remain the same, that traditions will never change and that people who are close to me will always be nearby. I know that’s not realistic, but I’m stunned at times by the changes that occur.

Memories provide perspective and comfort amid the changes, and the realization that changes are inevitable.

My parents have passed. The wingtips and currant biscuits are long gone. The Greatest Generation is fading into history. Our children are grown. We watch our grandchildren and wonder. A simpler time is no more.

The lyrics of that 1943 song ring strong and true over seven decades: “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”
That will never change no matter which generation takes the stage.

Michael Mentzer, now retired after a 40-year newspaper career, writes a monthly column for Scene.

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