Of the many Christmas Eve memories I have stored up over the years, the one that brings me the most joy has nothing to do with stuffed stockings or present peeking or Santa appearances—all of which I do remember, but not with much fervor. Of course presents were of superior importance to me, especially back in small-kid days. There was this Barbie Townhouse that I had hounded my parents about from one Christmas to the next, and perhaps after my well-rehearsed begging session, they caved in and allowed me to open the Big Giftie on the Christmas Eve before I turned eight.
Upon shredding the pristinely wrapped box, I beheld the object of my longing. I was eternally overjoyed with this pink palace of Barbie wonderland—unaware that in a few days it would became the SWAT headquarters on my cul-de-sac for the mud-caked GI Joe’s, owned by the all-boy encampment that surrounded my house.
It was after the unveiling of my townhouse that we sipped the traditional hot eggnog, peppered with nutmeg. Then out of nowhere, my mom handed me my warmest coat and told me to get in the car. It was late—close to midnight, and I had no idea what we were doing. Since my mom didn’t drive, my dad navigated us through a thick curtain of California fog, into the heart of Los Alamitos, where he pulled into the parking lot of St. Hedwig’s Catholic Church. My mom and I got out, leaving behind my church-phobic dad to sit in the car, listening to his late-night yuletide radio.
Inside the small church, the dimmed lighting and Gregorian chorus had convinced me that we had entered a place perhaps even more sacred than Disneyland. My mom dipped her hand into a water basin and crossed herself. Oblivious, I followed her lead. We found a seat and took off our coats.
Most of the service made little sense to me, especially since parts of it were delivered in Latin. We stood. We sat. We stood again. We kneeled. My mom nudged me every time I yawned as the priest, Father McCarthy (I think), spoke in monotonic phrases. People surrounding me were repeating his words, and since I loved participating in everything, I kicked in and tried my best to repeat whatever it was he said.
The choir resumed when the incense man entered, waving a smoky metal ball, followed by more standing, sitting, and kneeling. After repeating more verses and whatnot, a gentle guitar began to strum a simple tune. Father McCarthy stepped forward and became wholly human to me when he said, “Peace be with you.” I was about to copy, but the response this time was different.
“…and also with you.”
He said it again. “Peace…be with you.”
We responded, and before I could process the scenario, a woman in front of us had turned to me, took my hand into hers, and said, “Peace be with you.” My mom prompted me to return the blessing, which I did wholeheartedly. With the guitar still strumming, we continued exchanging peace with everyone around us. I soaked up the hugs, the pats, and the words, literally basking in the omnipresence of peace.
The service ended with an a cappella singing of Silent Night. My mom, with her deep raspy voice, sang along softly. I wanted to sing, but the all-encompassing awe kept me silent.
After the service, we found my dad in the car, dozed off in his own heavenly peace, and went home. I don’t remember anything specific about the following morning. Christmas morning. Perhaps my dude neighbor friends came over with their new GI Joe’s to hang with my Barbie in her new lofty dwelling place. Who’s to say?
My mom and I continued to visit St. Hedwig’s and made every effort to attend midnight mass each year. After she died, I only went once more on my own. The “Peace be with you’s” still meant the world to me, and singing Silent Night brought my soul back to life.
And it’s still with me—this peace that passes all understanding.
May it be also with you.
(this is not St. Hedwig's)