Today, in the rush of the season and the sometimes-exhausting pressures of traditions and holiday responsibilities, Ellyn von Huben takes a step back to align herself with the humble perspective of St. Therese of Lisieux.
Devotées of St Therese, the Little Flower, are certainly familiar with the story of her “Christmas Conversion.” Returning from Christmas Eve Mass at the age of fourteen, St. Therese overheard her father’s grumbling about his relief that this would be the last year of treats and surprises in shoes left out on Christmas Eve. Rather than succumb to the temptation to a tearful tantrum, she was filled with the grace to continue on in a state of merriment and to receive the surprises left in her shoe with smiles and gratitude.
I am not sure how others interpret this event, but I must admit that I always saw it from the perspective of the young saint. I could understand her dismay at the ending of youthful whimsy and her sadness at hearing her father’s grousing. Until this year...
During my childhood, stockings were hung with care - chimney or not - on the evening of December 5 for St. Nicholas to fill. Not counting the obvious Holy Family, I would have to say that Nicholas was the first saint that I knew. I cannot remember not looking forward to the sixth of December as a small glimpse of the bounty to come on Christmas.
Of course, I was eager to carry on this tradition with my own family. When my first daughter was born my mother knit a stocking for her, in the same pattern as my own. I was given the task of decorating it - and I lavished the same amount of overkill on the first child’s stocking as I did with making notes in the baby book. (i.e. - there is a marked diminution in the decoration between the first stocking and the third. The fourth? Hmmm. And numbers five and six only have stockings because their oldest sister found the pattern online and was able to continue the tradition.) I applied sequins to that first stocking until it looked like one of Elvis’s jumpsuits.
The contents of the stockings have certain prescribed, symbolic elements. One candy cane, a handful of golden chocolate coins, an orange plus other assorted surprises. There have been variations. For instance, the year when I couldn’t find any little foil covered chocolate elves and substituted chocolate Maccabees. They were elfin looking Maccabees. And the best source of gold coins is often the store display that includes the Hannukah gelt.
So, for thirty-two years, I have been overseeing visits from St. Nicholas. Sometimes I have put great thought into preparing the surprises and other years it’s been a little haphazard...but it has always happened. Even the year when my baby’s due date was December 6; I was especially prepared so nothing would go awry. St. Nicholas arrived on time but the little brother, given Nicholas as a middle name, didn’t arrive for three more days.
This year was different. I’ve been very preoccupied and honestly in a something of a funk. I did not expect to have a bit of a spiritual revelation while standing in the Christmas candy aisle of Target. During my lunch hour. On December fifth. I clearly thought of Blessed Louis Martin while tossing the peppermint patties and marshmallow snowmen into my cart. Where I had previously regarded him as having been on the cusp of some cerebral-vascular maladies and attendant dementia and clearly not in his right mind, I now saw him as tired. I knew how he felt: tired. Tired and at the appropriate juncture in the life of his family.
So here was a conversion of my own. Not quite ready to give up as the bearer of family traditions, I had to ask for the grace to carry on with good humor. I had been given the opportunity to see St. Therese’s “Christmas conversion” from both sides. Finally, I could see it from the grown-up perspective, not just that of a disappointed young teen. And maybe there is a grace in the weariness, helping to nudge me ahead and accept that my family life is not static and I am no longer the mother of young children. As I said, I’m not ready to give up on some traditions, but I feel that I was given the grace to carry on not with obligation but in a spirit of charity and fun (good fun being a wonderful grace in itself!). When it was time to fill the stockings? As the Little Flower herself said, "My heart was filled with charity. I forgot myself to please others and, in doing so, became happy myself."
Ellyn vonHuben is a regular contributor to the Word on Fire blog.