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Notably Norwich: A Christmas season like none other recalls beauty of times past

Christmas is a most special time. Unfortunately though, as with other holidays, its meaning is sometimes lost in the annual avalanche of commercialism — the hustle and bustle of travel; preparing and hosting dinner; gift-giving (and receiving); office and social Christmas parties; finding, erecting and decorating a tree; making sure our Christmas cards are mailed on time; and then, the dreaded returns afterward.

Advertising for Christmas — especially in this year of the pandemic — seems to begin earlier each year. This year, it was actually late October when the first of the Christmas advertising began airing on television. By the time Christmas arrives, our heads are spinning, and there’s little if any acknowledgement or appreciation for what the day really means.

It celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. When I was young, our family attended church on Christmas morning, yes, after the children were permitted a little time to enjoy gifts that Santa had left under the tree — usually sports and military toys for me, dolls and other “girlie stuff” for my younger sisters.

To think of the resistance my poor parents encountered when they announced it was time to get dressed for church as Christmas is a Holy Day of Obligation.

We usually picked out our Christmas trees, first at the East Great Plains Volunteer Fire Department, then in later years at Maple Lane Farms in Preston, which is owned and operated by my high school friend, Allyn Brown.

What fun it was to traverse some of the farms’ 325 acres for the perfect Christmas tree. Again, though, this is the secular part of Christmas tradition. Now, back to its true meaning.

In the early years, we attended Mass at Sts. Peter & Paul Church on Elizabeth Street, where Monsignor William Baldwin or Father Francis O’Keefe would preside. A stout, stern man with wire-rimmed glasses, Monsignor Baldwin was all business when Mass was in session. There was no leaving early, or at least not without the good monsignor calling out loudly that Mass had not ended, calling attention to those few who tried to sneak out after communion.

Those who arrived late were also admonished by Monsignor Baldwin’s brooding reminder: “Mass begins promptly at 11 o’clock.” It was bad enough to be late and have to search what was then a nearly full church for five seats together. It was even worse when Monsignor Baldwin would make sure the entire congregation knew that you were late. In most cases, it never happened again.

Leading up to Christmas in those years, my paternal grandmother, Myrtle Stanley, would bring out a miniature manger, replete with tiny replicas of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the three wise men and an assortment of farm animals who are all part of the story of the night when Jesus was born. While the manger set was something for us children to play with, Grandmother Myrt gently reminded us every year that they were religious artifacts, even though they adorned the space beneath the Christmas tree.

In later years, we attended Mass at the larger Cathedral of St. Patrick on Broadway, either with Monsignor James O’Brien or then-Father Anthony Rosaforte — known to all as Father Tony — presiding.

Some years, we would attend the beautiful Children’s Mass on the late afternoon before Christmas; other years, we’d attend midnight Mass. You had to arrive very early for both, lest you not find a seat even in the cavernous cathedral and be relegated to standing room only.

Many years, the message we were asked to remember was that Christmas wasn’t about giving and receiving gifts, nor a large, filling family meal, nor football on television. It was about celebrating the birth of Christ.

Like some others, I confess to keeping that message close to heart for all of the few minutes it took for us to return home and resume opening presents while Mom prepared a magnificent turkey dinner in the kitchen. Even earlier we children would engage in the same exercise in futility — trying to stay awake late enough to catch Santa Claus delivering our gifts.

Christmas this year is different from any other year. The COVID-19 pandemic has many of us living very cautiously even as a vaccine becomes more readily available. More consumers purchased their gifts online; most Christmas parties were cancelled, and those that did take place were much smaller and shorter than in other years; many families who normally travel long and short distances to be with loved ones have instead hunkered down and will best interact via Facetime on their cell phones.

While some parishioners will again be in church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, others will be more cautious and attend virtually. Regardless of which you choose, remember the meaning of Christmas and why it is more important than all the other social, commercial and recreational activities.

Here’s hoping all of you enjoy a holiday week that is safe, healthy, happy and in keeping with its true meaning — the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Merry Christmas!

Bill Stanley is a native of Norwich.


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