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Joy to the world! Christmas reflections from U.S. Catholic readers.

My dad, Frank Subko, was a Christmas junky. He loved picking out the tree. He enjoyed decorating it even more. It's no secret that Dad was an icicle freak. We went through crates of silver streamers. Our trees were dripping with the stuff, and Dad was always so proud of how they reflected the lights. He started planning the holidays after his birthday in July and would stock up on Polish sausage early in the season. He had a stash of chocolate-covered cherries way before Thanksgiving, and he watched every sappy holiday special on television.

But the real reason Dad loved Christmas was because it brought our family together. We always went to Mass on Christmas Eve and hurried home to make breakfast for St. Nick. (Dad figured Santa would be tired of cookies and hungry for bacon and eggs by the time he reached our house.) In the 1970s, Dad dutifully watched as my sister and I played guitar at the midnight folk Masses. As adults, we dragged newborns and toddlers to open gifts at Grandma and Grandpa's house every Christmas morning. If we weren't there at the crack of dawn, we could expect the phone call from Dad.

I miss my dad. He died in 2002. But his Christmas antics remain the topic of all of our holiday meals. Dad's love of Christmas is something we all cherish and will pass along to our children. And all of the holidays we spend with our new families have a special twist because of him. I cook Polish sausage on Christmas Eve, even though my children refuse to eat it. And what tree is complete without tacky icicles?

Memories like mine keep Christmas holy for a lot of families, according to those who responded to a recent U.S. CATHOLIC survey. Their most memorable Christmas stories contain family gatherings and struggles to be together. Readers never forgot the Christmas Dad was away at war, the year the grandchildren drove across country to visit, of the year Mom came home from the hospital.

An overwhelming number of those asked say their most cherished childhood memory of Christmas of Advent was going to Mass with their families.

Ellie Krupa of San Antonio, Texas describes a scene shared by many readers. She recalls "going to Mass on Christmas morning, coming home, and having a big breakfast with eggs and pork sausage, then gathering around the tree to open gifts."

Midnight Masses should be packed this year, judging from our survey completed by 186 readers. A substantial number of respondents say they love celebrating the birth of Jesus in the wee hours of the morning. Many of them go home to meals and gift giving before going to sleep.

The reason for the season

For U.S. CATHOLIC readers, the significance of Advent and waiting is not lost in the commercialization of the season. Survey respondents describe the graces they received through the suspense of waiting to decorate the tree, waiting until midnight to attend Mass, waiting to open presents, and waiting until Epiphany to dismantle their decorations.

Cecilia Grenier of St. Charles, Missouri says she cherished that delayed gratification. She remembers "being able to open only one present on Christmas morning because first we had to go to Mass and say 'Happy Birthday' to Jesus. It surely impressed on us children what Christmas is really all about."

More than three quarters (80 percent) of those surveyed say they are bothered that Advent seems to get eclipsed by secular, pre-Christmas activities. Some say they refuse to participate in the frenzy of it all. "I consider the contrast between the secular and spiritual worlds helpful in that it keeps me focused," says Linda Ruholl of Teutopolis, Illinois.

Readers say they are able to keep Jesus in the season through a variety of spiritual activities, the most popular being daily scripture or meditation readings, cited by 77 percent. Sixty percent say they attend Reconciliation services to prepare for Christmas. An equal number say they light Advent wreaths--many made by children or grandchildren--to prepare spiritually for Christmas.

Dolores Labbe remembers learning about the Advent wreath from her history teacher, Sister Anne Feth at St. Joseph Academy in Columbus, Ohio. In the early 1950s, the students in the girls' academy bent coat hangers and used soldering irons to make wreaths for their families. They hung a large one in the corridor of the school.

These days, Labbe, of Lafayette, Louisiana spends the pre-holiday season baking "hundreds and hundreds" of cookies and sharing them with friends and neighbors. Doesn't everybody from the Midwest do that? she asks.

Turns out they do. Nearly half of those surveyed say cookie baking was among the ways they bring spiritual meaning to the Advent season. Some bake goodies to share as gifts. Others host parties to prepare holiday treats. And some readers said they decorate birthday cookies for the baby Jesus.

While 38 percent of respondents say they devote extra time to prayer during Advent and 41 percent add a charitable project to their to-do list, others find spiritual meaning during the pre-Christmas season through traditional Christmas activities such as decorating their homes (61 percent), putting up a tree (43 percent), and caroling (34 percent).

Some families have managed to preserve the timing of those traditions, even when the local Wal-Mart pipes Santa songs through the store in July and the "must-have" toys of the season have already vanished from the shelves.

The Krupas of San Antonio don't put any gifts out or decorate the tree until Christmas Eve.

"We have always celebrated Advent as a time of waiting, hoping, praying, and anticipating the birth of Christ," says Ellie Krupa. On Christmas Eve, the youngest of the Krupas' eight children used to put a baby doll wrapped in a blanket under the bare tree before going to bed. Then Krupa and her husband would decorate the tree and put out the gifts.

"I will never forget the faces of our children on Christmas morning as they came down the stairs lined up by age. It was an exciting, magical time--a time of love, a time of joy, and a time of Christ's blessings," she writes.

Money matters

Many readers say they keep the holidays holy by keeping their spending to a minimum. At least 48 percent of readers spend less on gifts than they used to. Some say they refuse to go into debt to buy gifts. Others send perishable gifts like steaks or fruit for loved ones to enjoy during the season.

More than a third of respondents (36 percent) donate to charity in lieu of giving presents to friends, while 28 percent pick names or eliminate gifts for some people. A smaller number, 21 percent, make home made gifts to keep costs down.

"We refuse to participate in the consumerism. This is a choice we all have," says Bill Wright of Kewaunee, Wisconsin. Wright's Christmas memories revolve around his children and grandchildren. They have a huge sleepover before Christmas Mass. Gift-giving among the adults in the Wright family is limited to $5 each.

"We have poems, songs, and great fun," writes Wright. "It's nothing--fancy but good memories."

Frances Lafferty of Bristol, Connecticut buys grocery store gift cards as presents. That way, she can help her friends with grocery bills and help her parish school, which benefits from the proceeds of the gift card sales.

Other ways readers say they tone down the commercialism during the holidays include sending only spiritual Christmas cards or sending cards early or late, before Advent or even after the New Year.

Patricia Zemites of Tucson, Arizona doesn't mail any cards until after December 25. She used to build a model of Bethlehem and use figurines to follow the journey to the birthplace of Christ. "The kings did not appear until the Epiphany feast," she says.

Laura Damm of Starkville, Mississippi hosts an Epiphany party every year. When her children were growing up, they usually received three gifts from their parents, to represent the gifts of the Wise Men, and one from "St. Nicholas."

Teri Martinis of Valley Stream, New York enjoys sharing her Catholic holiday traditions with non-Christian friends. She also organizes holiday gift drives and hosts parties for residents of a nearby nursing home.

Her own home becomes a Christmas shrine as well. "We decorate every room in the house and remove all non-holiday items. We have a tree in every room on the first floor and in the hall," she says.

The perfect gift

Many of the most memorable gifts and holiday seasons shared by readers revolve less around money and more around sacrifice and family. Even as grandparents, readers recall the gifts of their first new hockey stick, red roller skates, and cap guns. Gifts made or purchased by children for their parents also provide treasured memories.

A woman from New Mexico recalls the sacrifice her parents made to buy her a Shirley Temple doll during a Depression-era Christmas in which she had a severe case of the measles. Another reader says her mother still wears the costume jewelry she bought for her at a flea market years ago.

Elizabeth Amend of New Bern, North Carolina still laughs at the creative wrapping her son used to try to conceal the kitchen spoon he bought for her one Christmas. "My young child was so excited to have picked something special just for me," she remembers.

Linda Ruholl always had trouble finding a gift for her husband until she decided to have a calendar made with photos of his daughter and grandchildren, who live more than 500 miles away.

"My husband is extremely hard to buy gifts for. He usually just says 'thank you,' and sets them aside," writes Ruholl. "After years of frustration, I finally succeeded in surprising and pleasing him last year with the calendar. And he actually uses it."

A reader from Evanston, Illinois writes about the family recipe book her children compiled one Christmas. Another says her best Christmas was the year her husband and son surprised her by installing paneling in the living room while she was at work. She was thrilled not to have had to spend several weekends doing it alone.

Many elderly readers said they value gifts of pre-paid phone cards so they can keep in touch with relatives who live far away.

Family reunions are by far the most cherished memories shared by readers. Many remember their Advent marriage proposals, babies born in December, and sick family members coming home from the hospital. Survivors of cancer say they count their blessings even more over the holidays.

"Marrying my wife of 41 years during the 1963 Christmas season" was the best gift of all for Paul Sutton of Falls Church, Virginia.

A Maryland mother says her best Christmas gift was the year her daughter, son-in-law, and two granddaughters drove 1,800 miles to visit for the holidays.

One reader says the best Christmas gift she ever received was "a sober husband."

An Oklahoma City mother writes that the best gift she ever gave at Christmas was a special medal to her son before he left for war-torn Iraq.

Jane Mueller Ungari of Glenview, Illinois recalls how Christmas changed for her family 41 years ago when her mother brought her new brother, Tom, home from the hospital a couple of days before Christmas.

"I'd never seen such a newly born human and suddenly I understood the gift of God becoming flesh. His arrival changed our traditions and celebrations for years," she says.

Grateful for Thanksgiving

While 45 percent of readers say Christmas is their favorite holiday, 34 percent disagree. Most of them say they prefer Thanksgiving because their families come together without the pressure of gift giving.

"I love making everyone's favorite dishes," writes a Minnesota reader about Thanksgiving. "Also, that's the day we decorate Grandma and Grandpa's house and make a gingerbread house."

Thanksgiving also is the favorite holiday of Richard Roos of Butler, Pennyslvania because "it's one of the few days when stores close down and acknowledge the sacredness of the day. It's devoid of commercialism."

Of course, one thing Thanksgiving and Christmas share in common is food. And food is a central theme in readers' holiday stories. Meals and specially prepared treats were often-mentioned ways of nurturing a spiritual bond among families.

Jean McCue of Sterling, Illinois says it was a special treat to receive her own box of homemade fudge from her mother for Christmas. "My mother sent a lot of candy to my first cousins in the service and we only ate the scraps," she says. "So a box just for me was very special."

Returning home to eat mom's cinnamon rolls after midnight Mass is something Norbert Bufka of Midland, Michigan says he never forgot. Colleen Rockers of St. Louis can still taste the caramel rolls that her family enjoyed.

Ann Danby of Quincy, Massachusetts says she and her siblings couldn't open their presents until mom finished her Christmas morning coffee.

The Advent message--waiting for things to come--doesn't seem to be lost on our readers. That a very solid 84 percent of respondents say they have no trouble finding the spiritual meaning of Christmas despite the commercial tone of the season is encouraging.

But Father Tim Lindner of Stevens Point, Wisconsin advises Catholics to further preserve the spirituality of the season by slowing down.

"One of my greatest sadnesses at Christmas is seeing a tree dumped by the curb on the night of December 25," he says. "In that house, Christmas is already over even as it has just begun."

1. It bothers me that Advent
seems to get eclipsed by excessive
secular pre-Christmas

agree 80%
disagree 12%
other 8%

2. I celebrate the spiritual season
of Advent by: (More than one
answer allowed.)

77% Daily scripture or meditation

60% Lighting an Advent

60% Attending a Reconciliation

50% Attending an Advent program
 at my parish.

41% A charitable project.

38% Extra prayer time.

34% Making time to do holiday
 activities as a family.

14% Other.

3. I usually have no trouble finding
the spiritual meaning of Christmas
despite the commercial
tone of the season.

agree 84%
disagree 12%
other 4%

4. These secular activities have
come to have spiritual meaning
for me in Advent: (More than
one answer allowed.)

70% Writing Christmas cards.

61% Decorating my home.

60% Gift giving.

48% Baking.

43% Picking out and putting up
 a Christmas tree.

43% Looking at houses decorated
 with lights.

34% Caroling.

13% Other.

5. In our family, we have tried to
tone down the commercialization
of Christmas by: (More
than one answer allowed.)

48% Spending less of gifts.

36% Giving charitable donations
 in lieu of gifts.

28% Picking names or eliminating
 gifts for some people.

21% Making homemade gifts.

24% Other.

6. Christmas is my favorite holiday.

agree 45%
disagree 34%
other 21%

These results are based on survey
responses from 186 U.S. CATHOLIC
readers and website visitors.

Note: Table made from bar graph.


"Silent Night" and "O Holy Night" were by far the most-loved Christmas carols among respondents to a U.S. CATHOLIC Reader Survey about Christmas and Advent. "Adeste Fidelis" ("O Come, All Ye Faithful") ranked third. Singing familiar spiritual songs is key to keeping the Advent season holy, despite the influences of secular music, according to respondents. "Joy to the World," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "Away in a Manger" were other favorites.

When it comes to holiday movies and television shows, readers say they find Christmas comfort in more light-hearted productions such as A Christmas Story, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Still, the Jimmy Stewart classic It's a Wonderful Life was the front-runner of movie favorites.

Several readers refer to books that also have become movies and vice versa. A Christmas Carol Gift of the Magi, and Amahl and the Night Visitors were examples. Some families say they usher in their holiday traditions with not-so-traditional Christmas movies such as The Sound of Music, Sleepless in Seattle, and Little Women.

The all-time favorite Christmas story among readers was the original tale-the infancy narratives in Luke's gospel. But after that, readers say children's Christmas stories such as The Little Drummer Boy, T'was the Night before Christmas, and The Polar Express are part of their holiday rituals.

Other favorite carols, movies, and books ranged from spiritual to secular and included:

"The First Noel" "Greensleeves" "Mary Did You Know" "White Christmas" "Ave Maria" "Angels We Have Heard on High" "O Tannenbaum" "What Child Is This" "Holiday Inn" Andy Williams' Christmas programs Boys Town The Santa Clause The Little Match Girl Midnight Mass from the Vatican The Bells of St. Mary's A Cup of Christmas Tea The Christmas Box Frosty the Snowman Christmas in My Soul Skipping Christmas Alfie the Christmas Tree The Other Wise Man A Child's Christmas in Wales Old St. Nick The Best Christmas Pageant Ever Woman Wrapped in Silence

--Kathy Saunders

By KATHY SAUNDERS, a correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times and freelance writer from St. Petersburg, Florida.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Saunders, Kathy
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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