Traditions: Christmas Eve
When the men of olden days
To the King of Kings gave praise,
On the fife and drum did play,
On the fife and drum did play,
On this joyful Christmas day!
As the choir sang the cheery French carol, we sidestepped into the last pew and sat down. Arctic air rushed into The Basilica of Saint Mary each time its doors opened, persuading us to keep our coats on. Husband held seven-month-old Dicka, a sleepy ball of rumpled velvet. Five-year-old Flicka and three-year-old Ricka, decked out in their dress coats and berets, had been elated to leave home way past bedtime for Christmas Eve’s midnight mass. After the initial charm of the late outing wore off, though, how long would they sit still—or stay awake?
“Once in royal David’s city,” sang a soloist, his voice a stream of light piercing the dimness of the church.
The choir joined his plaintive song, and I settled in for a glorious night. Although not Catholic, Husband and I had attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the Basilica whenever we could over the years. And now we shared the tradition with our girls.
I closed my eyes. December. During the previous weeks, we had visited the magical 8th floor of the downtown Minneapolis Macy’s, maneuvering our double-stroller through the life-sized storybook and crowds. We had tripped through snow banks to deliver our homemade Christmas cookies on flimsy plates to our neighbors. The girls’ eyes had sparkled as much as their dresses at their first ballet, “Nutcracker Fantasy”, at the State Theatre. They had danced their own jigs all through our family’s celebration of Lille Julaften, the Norwegian ‘Little Christmas Eve’, on the 23rd. And this evening, they had opened their gifts on the living room floor, shredding wrapping paper with fast hands and the air with their squeals.
Ricka rested her head on Husband’s lap. The baby snoozed on his shoulder. The church darkened. Choir members, in white robes, broke from their places at the front and streamed down the aisles of the church until they surrounded the sanctuary. We clutched our candles and waited for the flame that flickered from one person to the next. Soon, the glow of hundreds of candles warmed us. The Light of the world was born!
“Lo, how a rose e’er blooming,” a soloist sang from the balcony, “from tender stem hath sprung!”
I inhaled a shaky breath and stared at my candle. Eternity in one flame. Word made flesh. And that life was the Light of all mankind.
“I don’t feel so good,” Flicka said, tugging on my sleeve.
Back to earth.
“Do you need to go to the bathroom?” I whispered.
She nodded, and panic flashed across her features. I flung a look at Husband. Although draped by two little ones, he still managed to hold a lit candle and not see me. Flicka let out a cough-gag.
I snuffed out my light. “Let’s go,” I said, sounding more like a coach than a mother in church.
The priest strode by, a censer swaying from his hands, and the choir circled us like cherubim, blocking our way. How could we escape them all and make it to the bathroom in time?
Flicka and I scooted past Husband, and he raised his eyebrows. We dodged choir members and stares and made a beeline for the narthex. In front of the grand doors, I darted looks back and forth, and then I saw it: a sign heralding the good news of restrooms downstairs. I jogged toward the steps, dragging my kid along with me. But all color drained from her face, and her hand flew to her mouth.
“Out!” I said a little too loud.
One step into the frigid air and Flicka bunched over, emptying her stomach—splat!—right onto the pristine, stone steps of The Basilica of Saint Mary. The Christmas Eve moon shone its light on the circle of sickness. We had made it out in time, but new worries smashed my relief. What if the puddle of vomit froze, creating a slick step and causing an elderly individual a dangerous spill?
Husband, his arms full of groggy littles, bolted through the door. “What on earth?”
“We better go home,” I said, fishing through my purse for a tissue for my girl.
The next year during the prelude of Christmas Eve mass at the Basilica, Flicka jerked on my arm again, this time during the candlelit “Silent Night.” I shot Husband a look. He hustled our girl through the grand doors and out into the chilly night’s air just in time for her Christmas dinner’s exodus onto the steps. This time, I was the one to scurry out after them with the drowsy others in tow.
“Again?” I shook my head.
“Apparently,” he said. “Let’s go home.”
“I can’t believe you threw up twice at the Basilica,” I said to Flicka twelve years after the first momentous occasion.
“I think it was actually three times,” she said.
“It was? I must’ve blocked that out.”
“I’m pretty sure it was four times,” Husband said. “And it always happened on the steps on the left-hand side.”
I shrugged. “I guess nice traditions don’t have to be perfect.”
Maybe the smell of incense, too much candy, or the late hour had caused Flicka’s annual dash to the steps during midnight mass all those years ago. But nothing—not even a troubled tummy—could have disturbed our thoughts of that first silent night, holy night.
And then, like now, all was calm and all was bright.
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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.