I suspect that I am like many Catholic Weekly readers in that some of my earliest and clearest memories are of Christmases past.
While having very little to spare, my parents did their utmost to ensure that our childhood Christmases were joyful. More often than not, these were very simple joys.
On a property with pine trees it was easy to have a real tree that scented the whole house. The aroma of pine, competing only with an endless train of freshly-baked brandy-laden cakes and puddings.
Our tree was brought to life by homemade decorations and special ornaments that had been handed on through the generations. Tables and mantlepieces were adorned with cards from relatives and friends both near and far.
Advent was lived out through these very practical preparations.
The festive season seemed to stretch for days back then, perhaps not the twelve enshrined within our tradition, but they did involve the endless gatherings of extended family and friends, the sharing of food and simple gifts and special times which broke the ordinary routine of life.
For a young boy, the routine of church-going was noticeably different. The Nativity was spectacular, and the presence of many strangers meant that Carols boomed with great gusto, helping ward off the natural tiredness of a midnight Mass, as did the curiosity about what laid beneath the tree.
These Christmas rituals were repeated for many years, and they extended well beyond my childhood and teenage years.
Throughout my adult life I continued to make the trek back to my family for this sacred time. My annual pilgrimage driven perhaps by the desire to relive the sense of wonder and curiosity experienced as a child.
As the years progressed these celebrations changed. In a very real way, my adult experience of Christmas was less joyful. It became more commercial and simple gifts were replaced by more expensive ones.
The most noticeable difference however were the changes in who I celebrated this special time with, marked conspicuously by the absence of those who brought life and greater meaning to this time.
The death of my parents and my brother and other family and friends robbed Christmas of much of its joy.
Christmas today is not the same as it once was. While change is an inevitable part of growing older, we don’t always welcome it. I certainly miss Christmases past, the people and the time-honoured rituals we shared.
Sadly, emails have put paid to the picturesque cards that we would give and receive. Homemade puddings are storebought—and the list goes on.
Despite this, I am conscious that I am now celebrating Christmas in new, meaningful ways.
I no longer make the trek to my childhood home, but open my own home to friends who don’t have family or who have nowhere to go at Christmas.
I have maintained the tradition of midnight Mass, but instead of waking early to unwrap presents under a tree, I now spend Christmas morning in my parish with the homeless.
For many years I had looked at the work of the Rev Bill Crews, and thought, “what a great way to spend the day.” Now, I am not thinking it—I too am doing it, and I love it.
Christmas today is not the same as Christmases past and those of the future I am sure will be different yet again; different rituals and different people.
In the midst of these differences however we should remember that Jesus Christ is the one constant.
To borrow the cliché, he is the reason for the season, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13:8).
The joy of the Christmas season draws us into this reality as we recognise that Jesus is both the giver and the gift.