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Four Years at the Mount

Christmas Traditions

December 2017

Christmas magic

Kaitlyn Marks
MSMU Class of 2021

Golden lights shimmering against the deeply evergreen tree; sparkling ornaments dancing, shadows and light falling on the faces of those in the room. I glance around at my family each year and feel my heart grow warm with gratitude and joy. Since I was little, Christmas has been my absolute favorite time of year. Mention the word Christmas, and my eyes light up with glee and cause those around me to laugh at the childlike joy I experience during the festive season. Christmas represents an essence, a sparkling vision of the pure humanity and spirit of giving. Of course, there are presents, representing their own subcategory of Christmas magic, carefully chosen and given to others to bring joy. However, I speak of giving in a more traditional sense, as in serving others. This is the time of year to be selfless, to reach out and connect with other people, to weave a golden thread of humanity and common good that spans time and generations, all surrounding the warmth of such a holiday as this.

As a little girl, I was mystified by the shift I experienced in the world around me as the world became alight with snow, with lights and stories and magic, anticipation of joy and receiving love and light from all directions. There was a tangible sense of peace in the air, a transcendent joy that surpasses the stress of shopping mall parking lots and long lines and icy roads. One Christmas tradition that has encapsulated that essence for me is baking. When I was younger, this meant helping my mom and dad in the kitchen, begging to crack the eggs into the bowl, to try my hand at decorating the cookies, to mix the ingredients together into their own form of magic, and of course, to lick whatever confection we were whipping up from the spoon, my sister and I giggling side by side at the kitchen table as we snacked on dough.

As I grew older, the scent of gingerbread, chocolate and cinnamon wafting through the air from the oven became a beacon to me of the family time that comes along with the holiday. Although I became more independent and now bake often without help, my favorite memories in the kitchen are of the laughter bouncing around the room as the mixer whirrs in the background, inside jokes and easy, familiar conversation filling the air with as much joy as the baked goods rising in the oven will bring later. Life is busy, and throughout the year, it is easy to become preoccupied with deadlines and work and phone calls, stress and applications, daily routines and full planners. Christmas is the time of year in my family where it is most possible to truly live, to just be with those you love in comfort and familiarity. Christmas brings my soul the contentment of home and of love. It brings with it nostalgia and peace, and an opportunity to reflect.

Perhaps as magical as home and family is the actual magic that people around the world actively work to create for their children as Christmas approaches. When asked what Christmas means to me, I think of my sister and I having sleepovers in my room, staying up to try and hear sleigh bells on the roof in the night, sleeping with one eye open in the hopes of catching Santa. Moreover, I remember how every year, I woke up first, tiptoeing down the stairs to find that overnight, our living room had transformed, red, green and gold shimmering packages in haphazard piles under the tree, stockings filled and resting atop our piles.

I remember smiling as I felt so happy, not from the presents themselves (of course, those were lovely as well), but from being taken care of, loved and valued. I would tiptoe back upstairs, rather unsuccessfully containing my excitement, bouncing on my feet as I walked, and wake my younger sister, Lindsay, up, gently whispering that it was Christmas, excitement quickly blossoming in both of us. We knew that the day ahead would be one of relaxation, of giving our parents and grandparents the gifts we had so carefully picked out and so precariously and tirelessly worked to wrap perfectly, and anxiously awaited seeing their reactions on Christmas morning.

Curled up under piles of blankets, lights turned off in our living room, watching The Grinch, The Polar Express, movie after movie, I often think of not only the immediate joy I am experiencing, but the opportunity to create such memories with those around me. Just as magical and valuable are the memories I create during the holidays in which I am able to meet and give to others, in whatever ways become possibilities. This, for me, means purchasing the gifts for foster children written on the backs of pastel colored tags hanging on trees in the grocery store. This means driving through Thurmont on a Saturday morning in harmony and blessed grace with the seminarians from the Mount on a mission trip to deliver groceries to families in need for a Thanksgiving meal.

That particular occasion brought me closer to the true meaning of Christmas: experiencing companionship, joy, family and love while giving to others, reflecting on gratitude and creating memories that last forever. As the holiday gets closer, I aspire to embody the spirit of Christmas, to serve others, to be gracious and humble in receiving my own blessings, to be grateful for all I am given and am able to give. Peeking through old journals, my handwriting sprawling across the pages in haphazard lines, I can see vividly in my mindís eye the richness of the stories told on Christmas, the sparkling surprise of a snow-blanketed sky on Christmas morning, the warmth and light filling the room as such unparalleled joy flows through everyone present.

To me, Christmas is a gift in itself; it is a time to embrace tradition and community. Conjuring up the scent of gingerbread, the nostalgia of gently cradling ornaments passed down through time, the recollections of years past and family memories, Christmas will always remain my favorite time of year. As December begins to pass, I hope we all can embrace the spirit of giving, of living fully and of loving with our whole hearts. In a world that sometimes feels all too dark, let us feel happy and bright under the twinkling, glowing lights of the Christmas tree and the warmth of our lives and families, especially by giving to those in need of a little light.

Read other articles by Kaitlyn Marks


A Childís Christmas

Morgan Rooney
MSMU Class of 2020

I wake up to the first break of daylight shining through the shutters and projecting onto the wall across the room. There is a slight chill in the air, as would be expected early on a winter morning, yet the smell of the potpourri emanating from the kitchen across the house is more inviting than the warmth and protection of my duvet which my mother had lovingly tucked around me the previous night. The scent of cinnamon and cloves fills my airways and levitates me from my bed into the hallway.

The lights wrapped around the railing twinkle, and the scent of last nightís spiral ham and potatoes mix with the aroma I had previously savored. Atop the dining table, at which we only eat for Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, our centerpiece still sits: A Norwegian blessing lamp. The lamp is a wood carving which holds a red candle. Lighting this lamp Christmas Eve is one of the few traditions my family has. Passed through the Norwegian lineage in my family, it is said that if you fall under its candlelight, you shall be blessed throughout the coming year. The drippings of the wax from the candle now stick to the tablecloth and the crafted wood. This Christmas is not a white one, as it would be in Norway, nor has it ever been. Texas winters are mild, and snow only falls on an annual occasion.

For a young child like myself, this morning has been highly anticipated. I can finally fulfill all this excitement I have built up for the previous month and a half, watching the classic animated movies like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and Frosty the Snowman, listening to my fatherís compilation of all the popular timely Christmas songs, viewing the lights and wreaths displayed around the house and around town and visiting Santa Claus himself at the local mall to tell him what I most desired to unwrap Christmas morning. This anticipation is so great that I feel no remorse for awakening my parents and practically dragging them across the house to the living room with solely the giddiness and pleading tone of my words.

I am certainly sleep-deprived myself, as I lay awake for half of the night, doing my best to keep my eyes entirely closed and not move a single muscleóa preventative measure I took to trick St. Nick into believing I was asleep rather than punishing me for my involuntary insomnia by leaving nothing behind. I was told that he would not come unless I was asleep by midnight. By the time I get to the living room, I can see that my scheme was successful, as there is an additional stack of gifts to the side of the tree wrapping in an unfamiliar wrapping paper.

Half of them are addressed to me and the other to my younger sister, who currently crawls around on all fours, requiring my father to follow her around to prevent her from breaking something or hurting herself; this room has not been baby-proofed. My dearest friend, a white terrier, wanders around the room discovering the new scents that had recently been added to the room before finding a comfortable place to rest on the floor beside my feet.

After the long, borderline painful process of my parents needing to take precious time out of Christmas morning to fulfill their addiction to their morning cups of coffee, it is finally time to open those gifts that I had only previously been limited to staring at and shaking when no one else was there to watch me. Before each gift I unwrap, and after it is opened, my mother pauses me, and I am required to sit still for a grueling five seconds so her camera can focus and capture the moment with clarity. These might well be the longest few moments of my life. The requirement of each photograph is only prolonging and increasing my excitement to discover what I am about to receive. My mother does remind me, once again that one day, I would be grateful that she is taking so many pictures of this precious childhood of mine, and she is right. One day, down the line, I will be grateful.

I do wonder in the moment, as I quickly cycle through each and every box, why grown-ups do not share my prominent giddiness directed at opening the gifts that have been collected over the past month. I do not understand this now, but one day I will understand why. Fifteen years into the future, I will understand that Christmas isnít about what you receive from others, or how much you give to another. I will understand that Christmas is about the memories you make and the love you share.

In fifteen years, I will not remember what is in these packages, wrapped up with red paper and green ribbon, but I will remember sitting with my family, untying the ribbon, and tearing the wrapping paper from the box. I will remember the smell of cinnamon and cloves in the air, and the aroma of last nightís dinner. I will remember my infant sister, full of energy and occupying herself with everything around her. I will remember the terrier sleeping besides my feet, delighted to be in our presence. I will remember what is most important to me, and it is not receiving expensive gifts, but instead the proximity of the people I love most.

Read other articles by Morgan Rooney


The Season of Receiving

Shea Rowell
MSMU Class of 2019

Christmas is the season of giving. At Christmas, humanity was given the greatest gift it has ever known; that of a savior. God came down to earth. This is a gift whose value cannot be quantified. As Christians, we do our best to imitate the example of Jesus. Christians celebrate the season of Christmas by giving to others. We give gifts to our loved ones, cards to family and friends, and donations and time to charitable causes. Giving is a beautiful imitation of Jesus, and is a pure and wonderful way to celebrate the season of Christmas. Giving, however, is only half the battle.

As strange as it may seem, Christmas is also the season of receiving. While this may seem like a selfish and unchristian way to celebrate Christmas, it is vital to the Christian lifestyle. This type of receiving is different from the type that is touted in television commercials and radio advertisements. It is not about what you receiveóit is about receiving the gifts of others with grace and humility.

This is even more important in the Christmas season than giving itself. If God gave humanity the great gift of His son, the way in which we receive this gift is vitally important. While expecting the gifts of others is a form of selfishness, receiving the gifts of others is a form of selflessness, as shifts the focus onto the giver. The first step in properly receiving any gift is recognizing its valueónot only its monetary cost, but the time, consideration, and effort that went into the gift. The gift of Jesus Christ is a gift of infinite magnitude. It is Godís way of showing that He cares for usóenough to come to earth in the form of a little child. Enough to live among His creation and perform a saving mission which would cost Him His life. That kind of love and sacrifice cannot be measured. Its value does not have a dollar sign attached. It is the ultimate act of love, as valuable as life itself.

If the first step to receiving properly is recognizing the value of the gift, the second step is recognizing the value of the giver. Any gift we are given reflects kindness on the part of the giver, and his or her desire to make us feel happy and loved. Even if the gift we receive is not something we want or need, it communicates the generosity and love. Likewise, the gift of Jesus reveals the nature of God the Father to us. He was willing to give us His Son on Earth so that we might feel His love and share in His life. Jesus, likewise, was willing to be given to us. He gave us the gift of Himself. Through the sacrificial cost of this gift, we can see the true goodness and love of God.

After recognizing the value of the gift and the giver, the third step to receiving is to accept the gift. As strange as it seems, acceptance is one of the most difficult parts of receiving. Accepting the gifts of others means accepting that they have spent time, energy, and resources on you. They have decided to use their kindness to brighten your day, or to provide you with something you may want or need. A first reaction may be to say, "I appreciate the gesture, but you didnít have to do this!" This response, however, is not necessary. The giver already knows he or she was not obliged to give; giving gifts is a free act of love. Thus, accepting that love is a gift in itself. How would God react if humans responded to Christmas by saying, "thanks, but you didnít have to give me a savior. I could have gotten one for myself!" How ridiculous it would be to reject the kindness of God! When we accept the kindness of others, we give them the opportunity to share their love with us. It takes humility, but sometimes accepting the gifts of others is the greatest gift you can give them.

. Once youíve gratefully accepted the give youíve been given, the final step is to care for it. Caring for the gifts of others shows them how much you value them, their gifts and their kindness. This can be as simple as putting flowers in a vase, or wearing that new sweater in public. Gifts, however, arenít always possessions. They may come instead in the form of friendship; in other words, people give you the gift of themselves. When people give themselves as gifts instead of material things, proper care becomes even more vital. Relationships need time and attention to survive. We show our friends how much we value the gift of their friendship by spending quality time with them. During the Christmas season, Jesus gives us the gift of Himself. This gift requires special care and attention like any other. What does it mean to care for the gift of Jesus Christ?

Luckily, Jesus told us how to properly use this gift. We must follow Him. We must imitate His example of love toward God and others. We must identify our own failings and give them to Him in repentance. We must forgive generously and lovingly provide for the needs of others. In other words, receiving the gift of Jesus Christ enables us to give as Jesus did. Receiving is giving to others. When our friends and family approach us this year with carefully-wrapped packages, we must receive their kindness and love as manifestations of the goodness of the people themselves. In the same way, we must respond to the gift of Godís Son by reflecting on the true value of the gift and the pure love of the giver. Then, we can accept His gift gratefully, and allow it to guide our lives toward Him.

Merry Christmas, and God bless!

Read other articles by Shea Rowell


A traditionóbroken and shared

Sarah Muir
MSMU Class of 2018

The night before Christmas is, with few exception, always the same. Over the river and through the woods a table is almost groaning under the weight of food. Thereís enough, someone jokes, to feed a small army. My grandmother brings out some wine, pours it out, and my mom and I help to lay the table with plates and glasses. My grandfather sneaks me a piece of ham that tastes salty and faintly like clove and goes to check the fire, adding another log to be sure it doesnít go out. After dinner and a soporific nap everyone dresses up for mass. I make sure to wear my bright red stockings and green dress to ensure that tradition is kept.

However, even before dinner there is a touch of tradition. As a family with roots in Poland and Slovakia, no Christmas Eve dinner is complete without oplatek. In comparison to the savory and sweet dishes on the table it is decidedly bland. Resembling a communion wafer, about the size of your hand it is dry, tasteless and usually embossed with a nativity scene. It is made to be broken, shared and consumed before the meal.

The tradition itself has been in practice since about the 10th century when designs were cut into a thin bread called podplomyk to make breaking it easier. The unconsecrated wafer is a symbol of family unity and is sometimes sent to absent family members or loved ones. In some parts of central Europe where the tradition is still practiced, oplatek is dyed and used as decoration. The Catholic faith is centered around community and the tradition of sharing a simple wafer serves as a reminder of the inner communion shared within families. Oplatek is a tradition of forgiveness, reconciliation, remembrance and most of all love.

The Christmas season is my favorite seasonóa sentiment I share with my entire family. As soon as November begins so does the decorating, the cookie baking and the excited texts that share the news that the next weekís weather forecast has a snowflake on it. I have always valued the traditions my family has passed down to me and the scattered memories that pop up all around the house this time of year. Throughout our entire house are mementos of the life we have shared: an overturned, painted clay pot snowman from fourth grade, my sisterís rather comical paper gingerbread man ornament with white tissue hair, a matched set of puppet ornaments my parents got on their honeymoon as souvenirs. Even reminders of my great grandmother live on in recipes written in her neat, curved handwriting; these are recipes that my mother probably knows by heart, but none the less reads multiple times to be sure. As she pours out the flour she would tell me how perfect her grandmothers cookies were and, mimicking the Pennsylvania accent to perfection, she would tell me what her grandmother told her: itís a good cookie, Chrissy.

On top of everything, dwarfed in ratio to the tree and lost in the lights, limbs and sparkling glass is a light pink-clad angel with small gold wings that we have had for a lifetime. Through the headaches of tangled lights and the misleading labels on boxes whose lids donít quite fit any longer, my family creates memories that will always been added to and shared.

I will always remember that I woke up early. Before the sun even peaked over the horizon my eyes would open and I would slip out of bed, shivering slightly as my feet met the cool hard wood. It took me many years to learn where to step to avoid the creaks and groans that would, no doubt, stir any creature or mouse. My fatherís less than soft snoring would ensure me that Ma and Pa were still in the midst of their winters nap. How I would make my way past my parentís room without being heard?

I will remember how it felt to step as lightly as possible down the steps, smelling the fragrance of pine, candles that were blown out hours ago and the soft scent of the heat coming off the metal radiators. The doors to the room that housed the Christmas tree were always closed on Christmas morning (by Santa no doubt) and they rattled lightly as they opened. I only opened them wide enough to squeeze through because any noise could wake my sister who is not the most pleasant when her sleep is interrupted. After the lights glittered into being I would sit in the light of the Christmas tree, swaddled in blankets, until my patience wore thin. Unable to wait any longer, I would make noticeable rustling that would no doubt be heard by my parents and sister.

Christmas has changed a little. I neednít worry about waking my sister; between work and school I havenít been around for a majority of the cookie making. However, I still wake up early. As I get older I am able to wait longer before waking anyone else. Now, I peacefully enjoy the silent, dark, mornings lit only by the Christmas tree. It is my own personal tradition. Even when I am old and gray and full of sleep, on Christmas Eve Iíll make sure the oplatek is broken and shared around a table full of food and family. And before the sun reaches through the night I will wake up early to keep my morning tradition and vigil with the Christmas tree.

Read other articles by Sarah Muir

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