I suggested to my six-year-old that Christmas is first about the birth of Jesus and second about the presents. His honest little soul responded, “Maybe for you, Mom.”
I knew how he felt as I wondered if Christmas, for me, was more about family than about the birth of Christ. Though I no longer anticipate Santa’s arrival, my anticipation for getting together with my cousins is just as strong.
My cousins and I grew up almost as siblings. Some of us went to the same grade school. We lived walking distance from one another in Pittsburgh. We got together for every event: Christmas, Easter, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, birthdays, school plays, athletic events, Sunday dinner.
Of the almost weekly gatherings, Christmas was the most special. Our traditions pre-date my birth. For over 40 years, my Sicilian grandmother presided over her four children, their spouses and her eleven grandchildren. We gathered in one home or another, with, of course, an abundance of food. While our parents had loud and lively discussions (much of it in Italian-accented English), my cousin Kathy led us younger children in creating a play or musical that we would perform for the adults later in the evening. Opening our gifts, one at a time, took forever, with Grandma getting the most (one from each of us!). We always concluded the evening by singing a lively refrain of “We wish you a Merry Christmas.”
Over time, the make-up of our group changed. We went to college and brought home friends who had nowhere else to go. Most of us got married and some of us had children. Some dear relatives passed away. For a few years, it wasn’t certain whether our Christmas gatherings would continue. Some had jobs that required them to work on Christmas day. Others felt the pull of spending Christmas with our in-laws. We tried different venues, one year holding the party in a function room to minimize the work, but afterwards we all agreed that it felt too impersonal. We tried breaking up into our now-larger nuclear families to start new traditions, but we missed our time together.
Eventually, we settled into the tradition that I now anticipate each year. My cousin Cathy hosts the party at her home. (Yes, we have two cousin C/Kathy’s, plus two Tony’s and one Antonio.) This year, 29 of us gathered to eat our traditional sausage and peppers (which were the best ever this year), ham, chicken, lasagna, potatoes, salad, green beans and whatever vegetarian dishes Cyndi and I bring. Terry shares her amazing cookies alongside the other deserts. We reconnect through recounting stories of our lives and through building memories together as events unfold during the celebration.
Though the children no longer craft a performance for the adults, my children eagerly look forward to what they know in their soul is a special and fun time with their Pittsburgh cousins. They play Wii and other video games, dance along to musical dance shows, and challenge each other to daring gymnastics feats.
Christmas day was perfect and wonderful though nowhere did we explicitly talk about God. We didn’t tell the story of Jesus’s birth. We didn’t even say grace out loud as we spread all over the house eating our dinner. As important as family is, did I lose the meaning of Christmas?
Then I read this article from the NYTimes (which has nothing to do with Christmas) and realized that two statements from that article linked my beliefs and my actions:
I really do believe that God enters the world through us.
God came to earth through the birth of Jesus, but he also appears through each of us, every moment of every day, as we show this in our actions and interactions.
Faith is lived in family and community, and God is experienced in family and community.
Gathering with those we love is faith lived.
I experience my faith and God in the richness of connections with my family and my community when…
- my heart expands as I treasure the stories shared
- I feel part of something larger than myself as I am woven into the memories I get to create with others.
- I am honored to bear witness to everyday events – the laughter, frustrations, sorrow, puzzlement, growth, peace, joy – anything that someone is willing and brave enough to share with me.
It takes a leap of faith to open up in this way, just as I take a leap of faith when I open myself to share with you.
Like faith, our interpersonal connections defy logic and explicit description, and they are larger than anything we can create on our own. And this feels like God to me.
Thank you for allowing me to experience God and my faith through my connections with you, and thank you for sharing all that with me. And anytime that you are with even one other person (or more), I hope you are able to feel that as well.
Merry Christmas, love and blessings during this very holy season,