Father Ed Shares ‘Little’ and ‘Big’ Christmas Memories

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — The big extravaganzas of the Christmas holiday season mean well, but too often their result is overspending, multiple late-night parties that take their toll the next day, racing and rushing around to the point of exhaustion, and the “shoulda,” “coulda” list that prompts us to say, “Next year, things will be different.”

Unfortunately, that phrase has probably been used perennially and forgotten just as often—usually well before the next Christmas season begins.

As readers may or may not know, I am a retired Roman Catholic pastor of some 45 years. My family history includes some Byzantine Catholic heritage, which shares a historical calendar with Orthodox Christians who honor the birth of Jesus on Jan. 7. In our region, this tradition does show up every year. In common parlance, this feast is often referred to as “Little Christmas.”

That brief history lesson aside, I find it interesting that tucked away in our mental files is a treasure trove of “little things” that make our Christmas celebrations and traditions more meaningful each successive year (regardless of which date we adhere to).

May I begin this catalogue of little things that make Christmas memories “big” with a story shared at a parish Women’s Guild meeting about 30 years ago by a lady named Margaret.

At the Guild’s Christmas meeting/party, the ladies went around the table talking about favorite Christmas memories. When Margaret’s turn came, she talked about being a child in the hills of Pennsylvania, riding to and from midnight Mass in a horse-drawn sleigh. That’s right, a horse-drawn sleigh from their farm to church! And there were 14 children in the family!

The ride back and forth filled the crisp air with a family concert of carols and hymns, with mom and dad leading the chorus. While this church excursion was happening, good Old Saint Nick somehow got into their farmhouse (interesting how much he resembled their neighbor down the road) and, at each of the place settings on the extra-large table, left the Christmas gift for each child (two gifts, actually): an apple and an orange!

So much for Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Margaret’s story and so many others were a joy to listen to. We all have “Margaret” stories that we’ve heard of or are tucked away in our memory bank.

The author, Edward P. Noga, is the retired pastor of St. Patrick Church in Youngstown.

In our family, my younger brother would — each day leading up to Christmas — change, rearrange, and change again the plaster nativity figures in the manger scene under the tree. And his favorite figure was a little sheep whose nose was broken off. Oh, for a picture of that little figure! That memory seems to come up at the Christmas dinner table each year.

Then there was the very snowy Christmas Eve when the head usher and I were preparing to take the Christmas collection downtown when we saw a figure trudging down the sidewalk towards the church. She presented us with a hard-luck story of needing something to eat for Christmas for herself and her three children.

Itching to get to our own Christmas Eve dinners, the usher and I asked her several questions about why she hadn’t taken advantage of the many generous agencies and organizations that try to bring Christmas cheer to those in need.

Frankly, I cannot remember what she told us other than that her children were at home by themselves and she needed to get back. We told her we would follow shortly (after taking the collection to the night depository) with whatever we could gather from the rectory pantry and refrigerator.

The address she gave was about six blocks from the church. She wouldn’t take a ride from us and disappeared in the snowy night. As we loaded my car with what we could procure on such short notice and started heading to the destination, I know that we both wondered whether the address she gave us even existed AND whether she would be there if, in fact, it did.

We arrived at the duplex. The downstairs was vacant. The upstairs was dimly lit. Steps to the upstairs were outside and quite slippery. We went up first to check the surroundings; I’ll never forget what we found. The door opened to a small kitchen that had a stove with one working burner. There was a small table with two chairs. A box of cereal on the counter and a quart of milk in the refrigerator were about all we saw for sustenance. The living room had an old rocker, and the bedroom had two mattresses — one for the young woman and one for her three little children.

The drive home to that year’s Christmas Eve dinner was certainly somber, and Christmas Day’s joy was muted for me (and I’m sure our head usher).

There are many little stories that make up both “Christmases” — December 25 and January 7. The bigger picture of the meaning of this Christian feast collects all of these little stories, and so much more, and places them in a memory bank which, hopefully, we can draw on to realize the true story of our relationship to all of humanity.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.