I Remember Christmas

Ken Moore Associates Presents

Commentary

I Remember Christmas

It was a very good Christmas.  

It was also December, 1968 and we had just finished spending a semester of study at the University of Caen in Caen, France.  Each of us has a Eurailpass which, at that time, cost $110 for a three-week rail pass.  After our studies were completed, we all hopped on various trains out of Caen and began our own version of “The Grand Tour”.  

Most of us travelled in groups and, as experiences like this tend to do, Lura, Sally, Craig and I became close travelling companions.  Some of the rest of our study group had tentatively planned to meet in Vienna for Christmas.  There was no special reason for choosing Vienna.  It just seemed like a likely spot considering our travel arrangements.  

When December 24th came along, we did indeed find ourselves in Vienna at a small hotel where our German major classmates at college in Maine stayed during their semester in Austria.  There were seven of us that Christmas Eve.  Doug, Dick and Dan had joined us to observe the celebration of the birth of Christ.

While walking around Vienna that day I was struck by the fact that I saw very little of the blatant commercialism that we had become accustomed to in America during that time of the year.  That was pleasant, and since none of us had too much money to spend on presents, we weren’t pressured into buying an inordinate number of gifts that had, at least in our society, come to signify whether Christmas was good or not.  Each person received one gift, something small that could be worn, or stuffed into our stomachs or backpacks.  

That evening we went out to a nearby nursery and managed to purchase one of the scraggliest looking Christmas trees that anyone had ever seen.  But it only cost a couple of shillings and would service our purpose.  The merchant gave us something that looked like tinsel that he had lying around his shop and we went back to one of our rooms to set up our tree.  Actually, we propped it up in a corner of the room since it couldn’t stand by itself and we couldn’t fashion a tree stand  out of the room’s sparse, but functional furnishings.

Two of us then went out to a local store and bought some wine, cheese, meat and bread for our meal.  We then sat down in front of our humble tree and opened our presents.  As mangy as that tree was, it was to us at that time the most beautiful tree in the world.  We passed around the food and wine, lighted two candles, and began to sing Christmas Carols and think about our family and friends back home.

Seven people in that room sang those hymns that meant so much to each of us at that time of year.  We joined hands as we sang softly, gently, and with feeling that I had never before experienced.  One of us read from the bible that he had with him, just like the Apollo VIII astronauts did just a few days previously as they orbited the moon.

Soon, some Austrians from downstairs in the hotel’s lobby heard us singing and came up to join us.  They sang in German, we sang in English – the music was the same.  The innkeeper had the Latin version of “Adeste Fidelis”, so we sang that in Latin together.  For the life of me, I could not remember the English words to that carol.  Three days later, on the train to Berlin, and as the East German police were checking our passports and visas, the words returned to me.

After we sang the carols, someone suggested that we attend the Christmas Eve Mass at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which was about two kilometers away.  Everyone bundled into his or her coats, scarves, mittens and two extra pair of socks, and headed for the Cathedral.  We arrived to find that the Cathedral would not open its doors to the public for another half hour or so.  It was bitterly cold standing in line, so half of us waited in line while the other half stood inside the doorway of a nearby café.  We switched places every ten minutes, but within a short period of time, the crowd had become enormous. 

Finally the doors opened and the multitude surged forward into the sanctuary.  On the outside, it felt like I was in Grand Central Station during rush hour.  From where I was standing to the entrance was about 30 feet.  Because of the crush of the people, I sensed that my feet touched the ground three times in that distance.  However, once Lura and I were past the portals, the urgency of the crowd disappeared and we were all able to sit together in a pew near the altar.

None of us could speak German at that time, but we all seemed to know exactly what was going on.  The Lord’s Prayer, the hymns, the celebration of the Eucharist, the proclamation of the mystery of faith – all of this needed no translation for us to receive the spirit that was present in each and every one of us at that moment and at all times.

After the service, we walked back to our hotel, lost in our thoughts and feelings.  At the doors to our rooms, we bid each other a good night, a Merry Christmas, and gave thanks for the joy that we shared together that Christmas Eve, for the joy of our friendship, for the joy in the miracle of the birth of Christ, and for the joy of being alive in this world.  Then we went to sleep.

It was a very good Christmas.  

Previously published on December 15, 1980 in the Morning News newspaper in Erie, PA.

 

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