Christmas is a time when I am flooded with memories and gratitude for all the people in my life who have given me gifts of themselves. Of course my parents and their extended families, quite a crowd since I have been blessed with 70 first cousins! As a pastor, Christmas Eve was always a busy night at work, Now that I’m retired and don’t have three or four Christmas Eve services to do, it is so much fun to sit at home by the fire with Nikki and the dogs and sip wine and indulge in finger food.
My first “professional” memories go back to my first church in the South Bronx in the late ’60s. Christmas Eve afternoon was nap time since I knew I would need it. At 8 PM we had our big Christmas Eve Service at Mott Haven. (More properly and officially known as the “Protestant Dutch Reformed Church of Mott Haven. Since it was basically an all Black church in the late ’60s, my kids at the church would always explain the relationship between the official name and the realities of our congregation as “Dutch chocolate.”)
After the service I and the guys who worked on staff with me would grab something to eat, have a few drinks, and then head around the corner to St. Rita’s Catholic Church. We were good friends with the priests and sisters at St. Rita’s and had a great tradition of sharing Christmas Eve together.
After their service, we were all invited upstairs to the rectory. The head priest’s sister from Long Island would always prepare this spectacular standing rib roast feast for us, and we would eat, drink and party through the night. And the Catholics had a great liquor closet! When the sun came up we would walk over to the convent and celebrate Mass together before having breakfast together. Then everyone would head home to sleep it off. It was ecumenicity at it’s best!
I’m eternally grateful for the folks at Mott Haven and in the South Bronx. They say that your first church really determines the kind of pastor you will be and it’s true. It was an incredibly turbulent time and these folks were patient and loving and willing to educate me.
I went on to a more established, traditional church in Milwaukee, where as a young, some might say “upstart” pastor, I sought to grow the church and reach out to the unchurched and particularly young families. I learned that the newspapers in those days had to usually scrounge around for news on the big Christmas and Easter weekends, so I delivered with admittedly some stunts which inevitably made the front page of the MILWAUKEE JOURNAL and usually with a big full-color picture. I would ride up on a white horse to the church on Christmas Eve dressed in the full regalia of St. Nicholas. Of course I always scheduled a “test run” the day before Christmas Eve so the newspaper folks could get a great picture! But it worked and the church grew. And I have wonderful memories of all the folks from New Life some of whom have remained in touch after all these years.
When I went to Littleton, Colorado we had a little church meeting in the basement of a strip mall in space we shared with the fledgling YMCA. Thankfully that church grew with lots of young families and we were able to build a new building right on one of the major roads. We had some folks who were involved in a ministry to folks in the local country jail. So we began baking Christmas cookies for the inmates. Knowing what I’ve since experienced in prisons, it still amazes me this worked. But the kids in Sunday School would decorate little boxes, and make handmade Christmas cards for the inmates. Each box would be filled with toiletries, usually the stuff you collect in hotel rooms, and a dozen freshly baked cookies and usually a little booklet of a positive, uplifting message. We’d make 800 or 900 boxes, all of which got trucked over to the jail, I suppose run through a scanner, and given to the inmates. Then we added on the homeless shelters in downtown Denver and eventually we were sharing Christmas love with over 1,000 boxes. That’s a lot of cookies and a lot of hard work!
We’d usually do four Christmas Eve services. Being a young congregation, they’d start at 4 pm (yes, with the white horse and St. Nicholas!) aimed for families with young children, with the last service at 9 pm and then I’d ride with some of the men and all the cookies to take them down town to the homeless shelters.
When we got to California we ended up in the travel agency business selling cruises and I worked part-time of the staff of a large United Methodist Church as an Associate Pastor. And we ended up instead of just one or two Christmas Eve services, having four. More work! But it was a really neat church with a good music program and a lot of loving folks.
So a lot of my Christmas Eve memories center around work, and the folks who were part of my church communities.
When we retired early and I began working lecturing on cruise ships, one of my really great assignments was spending four months on Princess doing 11-night Holy Land & Egypt cruises. And there I was able to go to where it all began … to what today is the not-so-little town of Bethlehem. And if you approach it right, you can cut through the gross commercialism, and still feel the power of God incarnate in the person of a baby born in a manger.
Supposedly, if you believe the tour guides, this is the spot where Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
And if you’ve not had the opportunity yet to visit the Holy Land, you might be interested in the Holy Land lecture I gave on all these trips to the Holy Land & Egypt … it’s kind of a survival guide on how to visit the Holy Land and still keep faith!