Through the years, my mother would refer to 1987 as "the year there was no Christmas." My father had died on Dec. 16 and his funeral took place three days later. Outside of attending Midnight Mass, there was no celebration of the Christmas season - no tree, no decorations, no carols, no Christmas meal, no gifts.
I felt another one of those no-Christmas years in the making when my brother died Nov. 21, 1993 and was laid to rest the day before Thanksgiving. By this time, however, a little person had been added to the mix and Christmas would have to go on. My daughter Roxie was 2 years old and looking forward to a visit from Santa Claus and all the other trappings of the holiday. So for her sake, Christmas would be celebrated at the Herrington house.
The Sunday before Christmas, I took Roxie to Immaculate Conception Church in Cassadaga for her first Mass. I'm not a big fan of people who bring crying, screaming or fussing babies to church and I vowed never to be one of them. But I thought with Roxie being 2, going on 3, I could control her in the pew. I was wrong and I remember the ensuing scenario so well because it made me laugh for the first time since my brother had died. More importantly, when I relayed Roxie's first Mass antics to my mother, she laughed for the first time too.
The tiny country church was decorated for Christmas with the manger as the focal point. Little Roxie gazed in wonder at her surroundings as I led her by the hand to a pew near the front. The pulpit was directly in front of her. When it was time for the homily, Roxie quickly became transfixed by the pastor, believing Father Patrick Elis was speaking only to her. She listened intently, never taking her eyes off him.
Condemning the commercialization of Christmas, Father Elis' sermon reached its crescendo as he bellowed, "With all the distractions of the holidays, it's time for some soul-searching. We need to remember that Christmas is Jesus' birthday and ask ourselves, 'What are we going to do for Baby Jesus? How are WE going to celebrate Jesus' birthday?"'
"GONNA HAVE BIRTHDAY CAKE!," Roxie blurted out in her innocent toddler voice, convinced that the priest's question commanded an answer. Although many in the pews were amused, Father Elis was not about to be upstaged by a 2 year old and continued his homily unfazed.
When Mass was about to be over, Roxie beat it out of the pew and although I tried to grab her arm, she slipped away and advanced a few steps toward the altar. Father Elis motioned for her to come forward. She wasted no time joining him at the altar, giving a wave of her hand to the altar boy as she passed by. Father Elis then asked Roxie if she had been a good girl. Roxie answered, "Yeah, but sometimes I'm bad ..."
"Well, you're the first one of my parishioners to ever admit that," Father Elis assured her.
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