My earliest Christmas memory, which also is my favorite, is walking back as a family from my grandparents house after Christmas Eve dinner. My grandparents lived on one corner of the farm and my parents lived on the other corner — about 500 yards part — and we normally walked over to my grandparents for Christmas Eve dinner, and then after dinner walked back home. As kids, we knew that there’d be presents waiting for us under the Christmas tree after dinner, and each Christmas I was always impatient for dinner to end so we could go home, and get to those presents.
But my grandmother served many courses for dinner, and everyone lingered long. I finally said, “when are we going home?” My dad knew what I was doing and replied, “Santa is busy tonight and may not have gotten to our house yet, so we’ve got to be patient.” Finally, late into the evening we put on our coats, gloves and hats and began the walk back.
That year there was a lot of snow and it was cold. Because the snow was deep my dad carried me on his shoulders as we started across the fields back home. As we walked I remember looking up at the vivid stars and hearing the crunch, crunch of the snow under everyone’s boots.
Then my older brother shouted, “Is that Santa? Is that Santa?” and I started looking everywhere, saying, “where? where?” My dad said, “I don’t see him, but he’s gotta be moving fast on a night like tonight; he’s easy to miss.”
And that’s all I remember of that night. Even though I was anxious for the presents under the tree, today I cannot remember any of them. But I do remember vividly walking home as a family, and all those stars and the crunching snow — a really pleasant memory of my childhood.
When looking back at that favorite Christmas memory, there is nothing special about it — nothing extraordinary, nothing miraculous, no wow’s. Just ordinary, very ordinary.
In her autobiography, Story of a Soul, Saint Therese of Lisieux writes how she and her family were walking back home after Midnight Mass, and she wanted her presents. But as they arrived home, her father muttered, “I am glad this is the last year we have to do this” because Therese, the youngest, was now a teenager. The whole family expected her to cause a scene because she caused a scene over the slightest upset, and her father just ‘ruined’ Christmas. But at the moment she asked herself why she needed everything her way, and that maybe she should be concerned about others instead. And she smiled at her family instead of causing a scene, much to their relief.
And that is the greatness of Saint Therese. And why she is called “the greatest saint of modern times” (Pope Pius XI). Her greatness is found in her ordinariness — but it doesn’t stop at the ordinary. Her greatness is found in her ordinariness done extraordinarily. Extraordinarily ordinary!
Isn’t this the story of the First Christmas? Jesus is born into a family, Jesus born in rural Judea, Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes. Even his birth in a stable, and laid in a manger is not extraordinary, because in that region, every house had only two rooms — one room for the family and one for the family’s farm animals which were brought in every evening. But when a family had guests, the animals were left outdoors and that second room was prepared for the guests instead. During the time of the Census, probably every second room in Bethlehem had a family in it. Being born in a stable simply means that Jesus was born in the guest room. Just ordinary, very ordinary.
Whether the First Christmas, or Saint Therese’s “Christmas conversion,” or your life at this instant — it is the ordinary that is important. But that is not quite right. It is the ordinary done extraordinarily that is important.
The extraordinarily ordinary is found in Mary’s response to the First Christmas, when she “treasured these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19). The extraordinarily ordinary is found in Therese’s response to her father’s comment with a smile and a simple “merry Christmas.” The extraordinarily ordinary is found when you smile at criticism, show patience when things don’t go your way, reach out to a lonely relative, or walk with your family after Christmas Eve dinner or after Midnight Mass. Everything is grace. Merry Christmas!