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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Holiday memories of Christmas past: Episode 1

Every Christmas Eve we would open presents at my mom's parents' house. We'd have tacos for dinner every year without fail. Tacos because they are quick and easy to make. The kids would always wolf down our food as fast as we could, and then hop around impatiently waiting for the adults to finish. They never rushed on our behalf though, I am sure it was fun to watch our eagerness and drag it out for a few more minutes.

After dinner was cleaned up, we'd all stake out places in the living room, and someone would be chosen to pass out presents. It was usually my uncle or grandfather. Then the carnage of torn wrapping paper would begin. Excited shrieks from a kid who got something they'd been dreaming of, the adults laughing and chatting, someone would always end up wearing bows on their head. When the opening was done, my grandfather would get a big black trashbag and we'd clean up all the paper, being sure that no presents were accidentally thrown away.

Then we'd all get dressed up and go to the candlelit service at church, which always started at 11 p.m. Being in Houston, it was always a toss up what the weather was like. Some years it was freezing, others, we had been in shorts that afternoon. We'd go to the church, which had hundreds of candles all over the sanctuary lit, and the kids would feel all big and important with their own candle. There was always a sermon, and then the lighting of the candles. Anyone with a lighter would light theirs, and then light the candles of those around them, until everyone's was lit.

Now, to give you an idea of how beautiful this all was, we went to First Baptist Church of Houston. Which is one of the "megachurches". So the sanctuary was huge, seating thousands of people. (see picture here) It would be at least half full for the candlelit service. The lights were dimmed, and each person had a lit candle. It was a sea of lights. The song was always "Silent Night". I liked standing next to my grandmother during the services, listening to her off-key singing. She knew she couldn't sing, but didn't care. She always said God didn't care what it sounded like, and I knew she was right. The whole thing always filled me with such a feeling of peace and reverence, and it always ended too soon.

The service would end at midnight, and we'd head to the parking lot. I remember as a child wanting to keep those good feelings the service had given me, so I'd try to keep my candle lit as long as possible. I'd walk slow and cup my hand around the flame to try to protect it. I'm sure it was annoying for my family to have to wait on me while I did this, but they never once said anything. Maybe they understood my need to hold on to it. One year I made it all the way to the parking lot before a gust of wind blew it out. More than one year I felt the sting of hot wax on my hand.

After that, we'd all wish each other a Merry Christmas and head home. We'd shed our church clothes and climb into bed to fall asleep so Santa could come. It always felt like such a magical night, and I would give anything to feel that again.

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