Another Christmas Tradition
Every year at Christmas Eve service, the "old people" in my family tear up during "Silent Night," and every year I don't understand it. My family has been going to Calvary Episcopal in downtown Rochester, Minn., for a long time. My grandpa went there with his grandparents. Every Christmas Eve I drive up to Rochester with my parents and my sister and we brave the icy roads and bundle up in our pea coats and scarves and step out into the Minnesota night with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. We take up two full pews so we get there early and listen to the children of the congregation squeak out Christmas carols on clarinets and violins. I love Christmas Eve service, but every year I get just a little uncomfortable after communion, when it's time for "Silent Night" and the "old people," like my grandpa and my mom start sniffling and dabbing their eyes. This year was different, though. This year I realized I am finally one of the "old people" myself.
When everyone is seated after communion, the organist softly begins "Silent Night" and the congregation joins in. Slowly the nave lights switch off and then the organ drops out and suddenly the night really is silent except for the sound of our voices in the dark church lit only by little beams from the candles on the altar. This year, I made it through the first verse just fine, and my grandpa seemed to be doing okay too. But then the second verse hit. At "glories stream from heaven afar" I completely lost it. And this wasn't subtle, somber crying either, where I could still hum along. I had to hold my breath so I wouldn't sob and ruin the moment for everyone else. Tears were running down my cheeks. I remembered my thoughts as a little kid feeling totally awkward at my relatives crying on Christmas Eve. How could you cry on a holiday? What in the world could you be sad about?
And now I realize it isn't sadness, exactly. At first I was overcome with the poetry and depth of "glories stream from heaven," the beautiful image in front of that dark altar, the contrast between the shadows of the church and the brilliance of the whole Christmas story. But then there was also something about the holidays that made me think about how different my life is now than it was just a few years ago, and how different it will be a few years from now. The constancy of the same Christmas Eve service with the same carols and liturgy and psalms made the rapid changes in my college-age life seem even more jarring. My grandpa was sitting next to me. I thought of him holding hands with his grandparents during the Lord's Prayer and finally understood.
Fortunately, the next hymn, like every year, was "Joy to the World." The lights came back on and our faces were illuminated again and after the post-communion prayer we all stood and sang "let earth receive her King" with the strong chords of the organ supporting us. Then it was time for oyster stew and gift exchange, and all the "Silent Night" tears were wiped away and forgotten, mostly. But I will remember this Christmas as the Christmas I became an "old person," the year the service finally touched me, the year I understood.
Posted by: Shirley Ackerman | January 9, 2009 4:03 PM
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