Christmas is quickly approaching and I have been thinking about the many family memories contained in this amazing holiday season. It is a season which contains the power to bring healing to our wounded world. Advent, and the entire Christmas season, including the traditional twelve days of Christmas, give us the opportunity to ritualize a deeper appreciation for our ancestors, families, friends, and neighbors. Each year, the season encourages us to forgive shortcomings, release grudges, and reach out with hope to new beginnings. Whether we are religious and believe the truths in wisdom literature or secular and put our faith in science, this season calls us to contemplate the bounty of our world and the interconnected nature of humankind. Our existence is one of interrelatedness, complementarity, and interdependence. Our differences create the textures and tones that make our world tree vibrant and beautiful. In this blog, I invite you join me in becoming more attentive to the memories, people, and places which fill this season with the potential for greater patience, new birth, and continued growth.
My father’s parents were first generation Americans who emigrated from Poland in1904 and 1909. Until the day they died, my grandparents spoke “broken English” and were much more comfortable speaking their native tongue and celebrating Polish traditions. They settled in neighborhoods where priests, doctors, and shopkeepers spoke Polish. They died before I was born, so each holiday season I become a bit melancholy that they were never part of the family celebrations I remember. Similarly, my dad died when I was twenty and just two months after I gave birth to my first child. Holiday joy is always touched by a small sadness that my three children and their families will only know my dad through anecdotes and family photos. What stories and photos will you be sharing this holiday season? Who will you be missing? What bits of sadness will you be experiencing?
As a young child, the family gatherings I remember included my parents, their siblings, and their extended families, Uncle Frank, Aunt Lil, Uncle Walter, Aunt Betty and their children. When my maternal grandmother was alive, we often spent time with some of her siblings, “Uncles” Harry (aka Jerome) and Louie, who were actually my “great” or “grand” uncles. At Christmas, whenever I smell a cigar I remember them. Uncle Harry’s wife, Aunt Helen, was a kind woman, I remember her quiet demeanor and gentle smile. I played with their four children, Jerry, Joyce, Jackie, and Jeffrey. I recall that Great-aunt Hattie, Uncle Louie’s wife, made her own soap, loved baking, and had skin like alabaster. To the best of my knowledge, Uncle Louie and Aunt Hattie never had any children. I never met my great aunt Mary or her husband, though we often spent time with their daughter “Aunt Loretta”, and her husband, “Uncle Chuck.” (It wasn’t until my adult years that I realized, in terms of blood line, they were actually my first cousins!) We all lived in Chicago and, though some of my family never owned a car, we did our best to get together for important celebrations and holidays. At this time of year, I am filled with gratitude for the blessing of those memories. What do you remember about your childhood celebrations? Have you found a way to forgive the shortcomings of friends and relatives? What prayers of thanks are born in you this season?
I find it sad that we live so far apart these days. I have nieces and nephews who live hundreds or even thousands of miles away and I miss their presence, particularly during the holidays. Social media is a poor substitute for a family dinner. It is one of the greatest joys of my life, now that all my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles are deceased, to spend time with my sister and my second cousin. There are many drawbacks to the social media experience, but I am grateful that it offers the opportunity to share photos, thoughts, prayer needs, struggles, and accomplishments across the miles. Who will you be contacting through the mail or the internet this holiday season? Do you have plans to visit relatives far and near?
At holiday time, “family” often has less to do with kin and more to do with kindred spirits. Two doors down from the two story brick home where I was born, lived two childhood girlfriends, Shirley and Carol, their parents, and grandparents, “Busia” and “Dziadziu.” Since my grandparents were deceased, their “Grandma” and “Grandpa” became mine. Their aunts and uncles were my second family. We attended parties and holiday celebrations as if we actually shared blood. Some of my best holiday memories took place in their third floor apartment gathered near a Polish żłobek (creche). Do you have someone you consider, or who considers you his/her “second family?” What family memories will they be conjuring this season?
In the years when my brother, brother-in-law, and nephew were in the Navy, and able to get home for the holidays, they often invited their sailor-friends, who could not get home, to our holiday feasts. For those celebrations the word family took on a even broader meaning. Today, when we invite neighbors to join us for a meal, we extend our family bonds. When we contribute to our parish food pantry, we get a sense of sharing a meal with our global family. When have you experienced the joy of your “global family?” How will you be reaching out this Christmas season?
Just about six weeks ago, I celebrated my best friend’s sixty-fifth birthday. We have been friends for at least fifty-five of those years. Her family and mine are so intertwined that we believe our blood must have intermingled generations ago, because we feel like sisters. (Seriously, her paternal bloodline seems to be connected to mine back in a town called Laczka, Poland/Austria, though I have not as yet been able to find solid proof.) Whether or not a bloodline is discovered, both of us know that we have a connection that is more powerful than blood. We have shared joys, sorrows, heartaches, and happiness. Her children are mine and mine are hers. The branches of our family trees have become so intertwined that permanent grafts have developed. Our friendship is a blessing and a true treasure for which I am extremely grateful. Whose friendship makes gratitude well up in your heart? Have you told those friends how much they mean to you?
I am grateful for all of you who will be using this article as a springboard to reminisce about your own holidays past and present. Please embrace the sadness along with the joy! I once read that we should never fear the shadows, because it just means there is a bright light somewhere nearby. I pray that you find the spirit of patience, peace, and joy, even in the memories that bring a tear or two, because tears are the evidence of great love. May you have a enriching Advent and a memorable holiday season!