A Child’s Christmas in Wurtsboro

JMJ

IT BEGINS when, prompted by the Wurtsboro Village Council and borrowing a truck from his employer, Orange and Rockland electric company, my grandfather puts up the village lights. Driving slowly through town in a cherry picker, Grandpa puts up the aged white candles, the green wreaths, the red-lighted garlands. Snow has fallen. Trees have been placed on stands in living rooms and decorated. Houses have been lighted. I take a trip into the evergreen forest in Wilsey Valley to bring back a huge bag of greenery. Lights and boughs spiral around my parents’ house and drape off the stairs.

In mad anticipation my mother cooks, my grandmother cooks, my great grandmother cooks. Aunt Linda cooks. Aunt Marie cooks. Aunt Karen cooks. Families visit from hither and yon, and friends make more attempts to be friendlier than normal.

Timmy, the paper boy, spends longer in his daily stops. During his last monthly trip to punch our card and get things taken care of, he actually comes inside for a sip of hot cocoa and maybe yes, thank you, some cookies. In a few days he’ll find a box of them along with a five dollar bill and maybe some gloves in the paper box as he drops off our copy of the Times-Herald Record. At the post office Mom spends far too much time chatting with Mr Olcott, the postmaster, and a trip to Jerry Gaubard’s tiny Grocery Store can begin to take hours. The Greenwalds have decorated their drug store. The bandstand in the village park is filled with pine and lights. The Canal Towne Emporium positively reeks – well out into the street – with scented candles, potpourri and cinnamon. The Old Valley, filled even in the feria times with Black Forest coo-coo clocks, covered steins and hand-carved picture frames is now decked out in Germanic Yuletide finery: nutcrackers and candle-lighted pyramids. Uncle Jimmy has tiny wreaths on the tables in the dinner.

The Emma C Chase Elementary School has their Christmas pageant: a chorus and a few holiday songs, maybe a poetry reading, then one hora danced to tzena-tzena as we explain the Festival of Lights. The Monticello Central Middle School has its Christmas Concert: a two part choir and a band. The Monticello Central High School has its Christmas Concert: a four part choir, a stage band and an orchestra plus a show-stopping all-out choral and orchestral finale. And now School has closed for Christmas Break. After weeks of build-up the day arrives.

Late in the day on Christmas Eve the menfolk vanish off to the firehouse. The women vanish off to the Methodist Church. The kids, hyper-excited, over-extended, exhausted, try to get a nap in: maybe if I sleep now, Santa will come now. But there is to be no such luck for no one is allowed to nap for too long on Christmas Eve.

At 6:30 PM everyone is off – in layers of coats and scarves and hats and gloves – to the firehouse for the village carol sing. The fire trucks have been moved outside, and we all stand around inside the Garage, the largest enclosed space in the village. We are a village of 900 souls gathered around an upright piano that is tuned once a year for this very event. Even in such a small town this is the only time when some of us will see each other. Old friends, not having seen each other since last Christmas Eve, greet each other with warm hugs. Children return from college and stand happily with their parents. Older children return with their own spouses, their own children. Forming huge continents floating in the sea of fellow villagers, they stand with their parents and grandparents, as now my own father stands with his wife and kids, next to his father and mother, his grandparents and six generations total – my sister having her own grandchildren now. My grandmother and my Aunt Marie, wife of the Fire Chief, serve doughnuts and coffee. My great grandmother smiles as her husband, the former chief, is greeted with honour by all.

The Dutch Reformed Pastor, the Rev. Wing, invokes. Sally or Michael plays the piano and the familiar carols roll out of books that have not been reprinted since the 1970s – and are collected every year for re-use. They were donated by the local bank and they open, too easily, to a centerfold containing A Visit from St Nicholas. The community singing is interrupted twice by soloists: Aunt Betty sings O Holy Night. Nelson Hall sings, White Christmas. There is an irony in a scion of the only black family in town singing White Christmas. But no one seemed to notice – or at least talk about it.

The Methodist pastor, the Rev. Pinto, blesses. Then, spurred on by Uncle John, the Fire Chief, we begin to sing Jingle Bells. We sing loud and lustily – the younger children blasting it out. There is a sound from outside: the tocsin of bells and the claxon of horns and finally the scream of the sirens sliding up the doppler scale as a fire truck comes down the street from beyond the red light at the corner. We sing louder now as the garage doors roll up in joyous welcome and the kids stream out – herded to safety by parents and uniformed firemen. Santa Claus has come to us on our own candy apple red and white truck. When the kids draw near Santa usually greets them all by name – for he is their own uncle, or their neighbor or even my Dad or Grandpa or Uncle Tommy, seated on the side of the truck handing out small boxes of hard candies and cookies.

After a brief trip home to remove some layers and to add finer clothing, all depart again to their houses of worship. Aunt Marie and Mrs Semonite have decorated the Methodist Church. They have polished and dusted until, even in the pre-candle darkness, the wood shines and the brass cross seems to reflect the lights beyond. Pastor Pinto is in rare form this Christmas eve, as his three rural congregations come together in this one building to sing and pray. There is the Nativity Play, kids wearing too many towels and the latest baby born playing the starring role. And then candles are handed out and lit. The quiet, expectant darkness seems to take a musical quality. We sing now in awed reverence, Silent Night. And we walk into the cold to discover that it has begun to snow.

In the busy evening, somehow, Mom and Grandma have conspired to get some after-church coffee and snacks ready. The family rests a bit for a chat, gathered in Grandma’s den around the woodstove. Kids get sleepy. Adults get conspiratorial. WALL radio, 1340AM begins to broadcast reports every quarter of an hour about where Santa’s Sleigh has been spotted. WPIX begins its annual telecast of The Yule Log, the first ever virtual fireplace.

Children pass out. Parents hide them in cars, asleep next to presents that were also hidden with the neighbours or in some relative’s garage. For the child it is only a short ride through the dream-filled snowy night until Christmas Morning. For the parents it may be a longer passage, a bit of a delay next to the tree assembling a bike or a stereo. For the older children it may be a bit of a pain, programming a new betamax for Mom or stumbling around in the dark wishing to be, again, a child who believed in Santa.

And then this Christmas day dawns – the snow has stopped during the night, but there, on the porch, and on the greenery wrapped around the pillars, there is just enough snow to look beautiful. The lights, ablaze even in the quiet sunlight of Christmas Morning, seem to shine out. The family gathers in the living room for presents. And then moves into the kitchen for a snack.

Turkey is stuffed, potatoes are peeled, yams are candied. In other houses of sundry relatives, slaw is made, salads are tossed, pies are baked. Sausage and cheese balls are laid out, on platters with beef stick and hot mustard. Olives are toothpicked and cheese is sliced near crackers. Candied fruit is dipped and the chocolates are powdered. Nuts are laid out in wooden baskets with pliers and picks. Wines and beers, sodas and sweet tea, mulled cider and hot cocoa cover the table. Guests arrived and the prepared foods are merged and arranged into a Christmas Feast. Grace is said, eggnog is whipped and chilled, turkey sliced, bellies stuffed, children served on card tables and 65 plates – the good china and then some – are all laid to rest in the dishwasher as 6 generations and sundry partake of the holiday table.

After dinner, children play Show and Tell with their holiday loot as Grandpa and I retire to the den and the roaring fire. We lock the doors behind us for a heart-to-heart over too much eggnog in the growing heat. Children pound on the door and we laugh. Mom comes and forces us to liberate ourselves for socialising. Aunt Sally and Uncle Ray depart, Grandma and Grandpa too, and so with relative after relative until only Mom is left in the too-hot kitchen, and Dad patrolling the darkened house for cups and plates. Or else lighting a fire in the barrel outside, a massive offering of wrapping paper and ribbons and shredded tissue and boxes.

Phone calls are made. My cousins Faith and Roger, our friends Steven, Marc and Jody, Michael and Michelle arrive and converge in the dining room again for some late night desserts – coffee and plum pudding or mincemeat pie – and a long night of gaming and reliving high school, of smoking and staving off the winter chill with fond memories made and shared.

Merry Christmas, we whisper in the darkness, saying our goodbyes softly so as not to wake my parents. Merry Christmas and much love.


In our small town of Wurtsboro, NY, the rituals of Christmas rarely changed when I was growing up, only the participants. Only in such a place could a writer compile a perfect Christmas Memory. In parts of this story I’m 11, in other parts 25 or 53… but the pattern was always the same. A lot of these folks have passed now; the old Firehouse, too. But the dance is always there in my mind, and I’m standing in the Firehouse waiting for Santa on the truck. I always hated the hard candy in the boxes though.

The Christmas Proclamation

+JMJ+

This text gets read at Prime this morning in the Extraordinary Form of the Office. There is no Prime in the Little Office of Paul VI (let the Reader Understand), so it doesn’t get read mostly, although it gets plopped in a la carte in where it might go sometimes.

December 25th anno Domini 2018 The 18th Day of Moon

In the year 5199th from the creation of the world, when in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, in the year 2957th from the flood, in the year 2015th from the birth of Abraham, in the year 1510th from the going forth of the people of Israel out of Egypt under Moses, in the year 1032th from the anointing of David as King, in the 65th week according to the prophecy of Daniel, in the 194th Olympiad, in the 752nd from the foundation of the city of Rome, in the 42nd year of the reign of the Emperor Octavian Augustus, in the 6th age of the world, while the whole earth was at peace, Jesus Christ, Himself Eternal God and Son of the Eternal Father, being pleased to hallow the world by His most gracious coming, having been conceived of the Holy Ghost, and when nine months were passed after His conception, (all kneel down) was born of the Virgin Mary at Bethlehem of Juda made Man, (sung loudly, in the the tone of the Passion) Our Lord Jesus Christ was born according to the flesh.

Octavo Kalendas Ianuarii Luna duodevicesima Anno 2018 Domini
Anno a creatióne mundi, quando in princípio Deus creávit cælum et terram, quinquiés millésimo centésimo nonagésimo nono; a dilúvio autem, anno bis millésimo nongentésimo quinquagésimo séptimo; a nativitáte Abrahæ, anno bis millésimo quintodécimo; a Móyse et egréssu pópuli Israel de Ægýpto, anno millésimo quingentésimo décimo; ab unctióne David in Regem, anno millésimo trigésimo secúndo; Hebdómada sexagésima quinta, iuxta Daniélis prophétiam; Olympíade centésima nonagésima quarta; ab urbe Roma cóndita, anno septingentésimo quinquagésimo secúndo; anno Impérii Octaviáni Augústi quadragésimo secúndo, toto Orbe in pace compósito, sexta mundi ætáte, Iesus Christus, ætérnus Deus æterníque Patris Fílius, mundum volens advéntu suo piíssimo consecráre, de Spíritu Sancto concéptus, novémque post conceptiónem decúrsis ménsibus (Hic vox elevatur, et omnes genua flectunt), in Béthlehem Iudæ náscitur ex María Vírgine factus Homo. (Hic autem in priori voce dicitur, et in tono passionis🙂 Natívitas Dómini nostri Iesu Christi secúndum carnem.

Ite ad Ioseph

JMJ

The Readings for Sunday 4 Advent (Year 2):

Vade, et loquere ad servum meum David: Hæc dicit Dominus: Numquid tu ædificabis mihi domum ad habitandum? Quare non ædificastis mihi domum cedrinam?
Go, and say to my servant David: Thus saith the Lord: Shalt thou build me a house to dwell in? Whereas I have not dwelt in a house from the day that I brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt even to this day: but have walked in a tabernacle, and in a tent. In all the places that I have gone through with all the children of Israel, did ever I speak a word to any one of the tribes of Israel, whom I commanded to feed my people Israel, saying: Why have you not built me a house of cedar?

What God did not give to David, he gave to David’s son: for Joseph built a house for God. I was wrestling with these readings, with the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Christmas Eve Sermon, if you will. Then the painting at the head of this post was shared in a Catholic Men’s Group to which I belong. It’s on the cover of an Advent and Christmas book by the late Henri Nouwen. Right now I can’t find anything else about this image: is it just a random artist’s cover design? If so… wow.

And Joseph worked every day to keep God clothed and fed, to keep the family together. Was he a carpenter in Egypt? Or did he find the Egyptians hard on immigrants? Did Joseph struggle with fear and surprise at all the responsibility he had? Did he know that, leaving that day for Bethlehem, he would not be back for five or six or ten years? When he got to Bethlehem did he set up a shop and do odd jobs?

Regardless of his age (some would say 50, others 20), Joseph was part of an arranged marriage, be that between himself and Mary’s parents (at 50) or between his parents and hers (when he was a boy). Leave all idea of romance out of this story. The Holy Family was put together – in God’s full providence – following the cultural desires and needs of their own families. Mary’s parents needed a married daughter so they could be provided for in their old age. Church tradition says they were already very elderly, so they wouldn’t have had time to wait for a boy to grow up. Joseph married into a set of needs that he was expected to meet.

Did Joseph know what he was getting into (before the Angel showed up in a dream, anyway)? Did Joseph know this was God’s Mother? The tradition of Mary as a mystical child would say she was very odd and everyone knew it. But did Joachim and Anna sit down and say, “Here’s what we knew…” Did they know?

God’s grace is enough.

One way to look at Joseph is to imagine a great saint who knew all this stuff and squared his shoulders and said, “OK, God. Hit me: I’m ready.” We want to imagine that, I think, because we want Joseph to be something more. We want Mary and Joseph to be more than they are just so we can imagine the story making any sense at all. But God doesn’t work like that.

Joseph’s namesake and ancestor, who also had dreams, was not only a member of a wandering tribe in the waistlines of the fertile crescent, he was also annoying as all get out. He was a teenager who offended his parents and brethren (despite their love for him) so much that his brothers sold him into slavery. And in slavery, even there, he nearly got raped by his owner, and thrown into prison for not playing along.

God uses broken things.

The idea that Joseph was a widower, looking for someone to manage the house and cook and clean makes sense. He would get a wife, yes, but he would also get Anna and her famous stews, Joachim’s business sense, and the kids of his first wife would get “step grandparents”. His household would be enlarged and his bed warmed. And there would be many good things, right?

But then it all fell apart and here she was with child.

But this was different. And even though his friends noticed and everyone could count and everyone wondered who the father was… he said, No, I will do this. And then that night in Bethlehem. And all that followed. What God did not give to David, he gave to David’s son: for Joseph built a house for God.

God’s grace is enough, but Joseph still has to say yes – over and over and over. God didn’t pick any man for this Job. He picked Joseph. Joseph who would die in 15 or 20 years, but who would defend this little family, this first Church. Joseph who would provide and care, defend, lead and build up. Joseph who would teach Jesus how to be a man in a world where men raped and pillaged to get strong. Joseph who would show Jesus how to pray and meet his obligations as a pious Jew. Joseph who would show Jesus how to saw, hammer, measure, and build. Joseph who would be “Daddy” for all time to this Man who was God.

God did not pick just any man.

But Joseph. Fear does not mean that one backs down. Fear is an offer to back down. Courage, the strength of heart needed to say yes, God gives. But it must be a gift accepted. It must be a gift used. Joseph accepted it over and over as we all must, and used God’s grace to protect this little family, this holy household. And when, in stunned silence, he watch first the poor, and then the very wealthy, come and do homage to his child, Daddy manned up and took care of everything with God’s grace.

Joseph.

Jesus learned about being a man in this world from this man. God picked this man to teach him.

In later years, Joseph died. And Jesus and Mary and the rest of the household mourned. Then in the Resurrection when Jesus harrowed Hell and opened wide Paradise, there was one man, right? There was one man would have been greeted with a hug, and that word, “Daddy”. And how could he not have been so greeted?

What God did not give to David, he gave to David’s son: for Joseph built a house for God. And who now still cares for this little family, this Church. Who still builds a house for God if we but let him build it in our hearts.

Go to Joseph. He will help. He will build up. He will protect. He will watch and guard. It’s his job and he says yes.