As a Mom, I have certain treasured memories tucked away in secret parts of my heart, moments that I take out, dust off, and lovingly caress in bleak and gray times. Christmas is an especially fertile time for growing those special memories.
Christmas for me is built solidly around memories. It's all about the traditions, the memories of my own childhood, and those I lived as a mother. The most precious thing is looking back at the shadows of Christmas Past from the embrace of Christmas Present, knowing I am adding another ornament to the tree I'll look back on in Christmases yet to come. Linus was only partly right.
I am of French (Canadian) Catholic heritage. As a young girl, Christmas revolved around Midnight Mass and Family. Everything else about Christmas sprang from those two truths. Every Christmas Eve, the whole clan would gather at the house of one of my grandparents – Memere and Pepere in French (there really is no way to spell the words phonetically). One year it would be at my mother's parents, the next at my father's. It didn't much matter because they lived within a few blocks of each other.
Both sets of my grandparents were old school Francos. My maternal Memere Cournoyer emigrated from Quebec as a girl. She never spoke English, except three key phrases, all she said she needed to manage in this country: "Yes, No, and kiss me ass."
I remember how excited I was as darkness approached on those special nights. I'd get to stay up well past mid-night, eat special foods, and hear wonderful music. I'd get to wear the Christmas version of my Easter dress, usually a green romper over a long-sleeved shirt printed with Eastern Stars hovering over tiny scenes of Bethlehem. We'd bundle up and make the trip, I carrying four small gifts for the grandparents, Mom a plate of cookies and a cast iron Dutch oven with a bail handle holding some of her pea soup. Dad, of course, carried the inevitable 6-pack of beer and fifth of whiskey.
We would climb the steps to their spacious apartment to be greeted with raucous joy on entering. Hugs and kisses were shared, and my rambunctious cousins and I would dart off to argue about whether or not Santa Claus was real – two schools of thought: A made up lie, and Course he's real, stupid-head! – and what we wanted him to bring, whether we believed or not.
At some point, the free-flowing alcohol would loosen inhibitions and Memere and Pepere Ouellette would break out the accordion and spoons; after brushing off the rust with a few traditional jigs, they'd segue into Christmas songs sung in French in jig time. We kids would gather around, enraptured.
Finally, eleven o'clock rolled around. The men would "secretly" fill small flasks with anti-freeze, and we'd troupe off to our imposing granite parish church. As vast as it seemed to me on ordinary Sundays, it was packed to overflowing for this Mass. I was sure everybody there had their eyes on me in my pretty green dress.
The Mass itself meant nothing to me at five, six, and seven. I stood, sang, knelt, and prayed all by rote. The beauty for me was the choir up above us, and the thundering pipe organ. At the end of the Mass came my favorite part. A parish lady, Madame Saucier, had a devastatingly beautiful soprano voice. The Church would fall silent, then wafting up like a vapor, the Ave Maria. Then as now, it makes my legs tremble and brings tears to my eyes.
After Mass, the part we kids loved best unfolded. A late repast of traditional Franco foods would magically appear on the table: cretons and crackers, tourtierre, salmon pie, boudin, crepes with maple syrup hoarded from last spring's trip to a real Quebec cabin a sucre, and the centerpiece, Memere Ouellette's exquisite Buche de Noel. How we kids slept after that feast is a mystery to this day.
As I grew older, gradually, subtly, but inexorably the traditions evolved. By the time my son Josh was born, the focus of Christmas Eve had switched to the evening Children's Mass. The children born by my generation performed the Nativity pageant, always a beautiful, moving thing for me. The meal had long since drifted into a late evening event. Everyone wanted to be home before midnight. I was an only child, so the family consisted of the same aunts, uncles, and the cousins with whom I long ago debated the existence of Santa Claus. Sadly, both sets of Memeres and peperes had long since passed. But the tradition continued.