I’m one who finds long sermons difficult to sit through, so you might think I’d think twice about the following creative approach to celebrating a merry Christmas.
The three-church Christmas Eve I planned ended up with me getting not only the full Catholic experience, but bringing me back to the time when I was in the process of converting from Lutheranism. A bit of exposure to the local Methodist church, too, made for a well-rounded Christmas. Nostalgia all around. But it could be dangerous if not done right, because of the wind chills, so I prayed about the process. Let me explain.
I couldn’t get a seat on buses (plural) for which I had purchased tickets, or plane, train or automobile, as the weather of course forced all kinds of cancelations, one of them only minutes before the supposed arrival of a bus. That is a story in itself.
So now I had a Christmas at my new home in New Richmond, both days, by myself completely – and I don’t drive. But no worries, as I thought I’d do something new: Brave the cold and wind and go to not only to a starter Catholic church service, but as many others as I could find at that time, walking to all within a little more than a square mile – I set that as my limit to wander, as I checked with Google before going – to get the most fulfilling Christmas experience possible.
I got up to three (large-size) houses of worship. Two other smaller ones were along the periphery, but I didn’t manage to include them since it was just too far below zero.
The streets were at turns slippery with deep drifts and occasional bare concrete. The wind chills only hours before were able to give skin frostbite in 30 minutes. I thought it would be critical for me to do more homework on Google to check for safety issues, and maybe more importantly, to see if I could find a place to warm up every quarter-mile or so. For another medical reason, the fact that I battle depression, this was of enough importance to me to have a great experience of Christmas that I pulled out all the stops and did what was in retrospect somewhat risky.
As I approached Immaculate Conception Parish, I saw a truck’s license plate that took a slap at such weather. Standing next to it, the bell tower towered over me when I snapped a selfie, and the camera almost froze up like my mustache.
In two churches, including Immaculate Conception, people asked at the door when specific service times were, as there were two options, or if arriving early, whether the service was being held at all. So there were a pair of different Mass intentions offered there. When the priest asked everyone to share a sign of peace, even if using a fist bump, it got loud in celebration for about a minute, as people reached out as far as they could to make the greetings happen. There was an impossible-to-not-notice camaraderie among them.
The first two hymns were traditional, and one first verse was sung in Latin. In the acclamations for the Scripture readings, a smooth organ tone was continued without interruption into the time when a cantor, one of the two teaming together and whom I’ve not heard before, sang with what I found to be an impressive tone, to add to the now-beautiful Christmas.
The Gospel reading, leading off the first chapter of Matthew, gave a long listing of the lineage of Christ, something I’ve always thought to be very impressive in its exactness, as far as the genealogy described. That powerful organ brought me back to days of old, with my childhood background as a Lutheran showing through.
I braved the cold to go further to the other end of town, and take in that service as well, at St. Luke’s. I had been pleased right out of the gate at the Catholic service by those old hymns, as when I was in kindergarten I auditioned, so to speak, and got the part to sing a solo at the Christmas pageant of “Silent Night” – in German. I still remember the words, in that tongue, possibly because my grandmother, who ran a beauty salon, would have me come over around holiday time and – sheepishly – sing it for her ladies.
Memories were abounding this Christmas in ways I had not expected. And I had to note the dearth of actual Christmas programs these days, run through the day schools and showcasing their students, on Christmas Eve itself.
As I entered St. Luke’s, a woman marched past carrying a fiddle, going up to the next church’s level and its clanging bells and organ. Taking up almost half of an entry was a big picture that looked to be a Sacred Heart, just with its five white petals – its small red heart was in the middle – showing a different version than that usually championed by Catholics.
I have always been fond of Sacred Hearts, stemming from a few weeklong stints at a big Benedictine monastery in the Massachusetts foothills where an uncle resided, where they are displayed by the dozens. I was even more intrigued, as I looked at the image I saw on this Lutheran door, to do a more thorough search, and among the almost 100 images I’d seen, only a couple resembled the one on the big wooden door, and there wasn’t one online with a major floral dimension.
One man told an usher that he chose to stay in the gathering area – mixing with me, as I lingered for a time, since I’m an outsider – because he had a cold and did not want to be in close quarters with others in a pew. A friend greeted him, interjecting her number of visitors that had gathered at their house already in the evening. “We had 26 people,” she said, a counterpoint to the man’s self-quarantine at the 5 p.m. service.
And lastly, I checked out the Methodists, who had a main church sporting more stained glass windows than I could ever remember seeing, a perfect look for Christmas. They had hundreds of smaller candles for all to grab, all set out on a table far enough away from the main aisle for a woman to ask about them before taking one.
“Come back any time,” the head usher said. So I did the next day, dropping off some canned goods at their free Christmas Day dinner. The greeter, again, said with a smile, “Back so soon?” I don’t think it was the person from the night before.
As I approached the side door, a women had just pulled up in an SUV, entered briefly and then walked back. She asked if I could take the box she’d dropped off the rest of the way, to the lower-level dining room. “I’m sorry for being a bit lazy,” she said, but it was a holiday, so take a load off, I thought. “Merry Christmas” was mentioned by both of us. I told her I was happy to have more of a donation than my few canned vegetables, so I granted her request. I thought the box was full of food donations, but it turned out to be empty, its contents emptied in the interim. So the woman’s food had gotten there anyway.
But I was well on my way to a beautiful Christmas after all, with my family observance rescheduled for the following weekend – thus, for me, taking up the majority of its 12 days with my celebrations.