First Christmas

A Christmas reflection by Joan Shannon, Guttenberg, Iowa

I was a newlywed and newly pregnant in December of 1984.   Our son, Stephen, was not due until May, but I was always hungry. My parents decided to spend that Christmas away in Hawaii. My two younger sisters were the only family members around to share the Christmas Day with us.

We were desperately poor. My husband, Dan, was certain a restaurant would be open for a meal as my parents had left the cupboards bare in preparation for their holiday away. At least, so we thought, we could use a credit card. I didn’t care as long as we ate something. Anything.   Driving around from one eatery to the next, nothing was open. The ravenous life within me demanded sustenance. In despair we sped home to see what we could pillage from my parent’s kitchen.

Once inside, I flung open the kitchen cupboards. Behold! A lone box of tuna and noodles with a green and silver labeled can of tuna nearby.

I simultaneously assembled and coveted the meal. My sister, Janet, had found a frozen pizza tucked away in my parent’s deep freeze.

With our meager feast complete, we four sat around the oak table to eat. I have no memories after that, except, perhaps, of some self-pity.

I share this story, not for indulgence, but for the outcome, which my immediate and extended family and even the occasional stranger have all benefitted from. Since that bleak holiday, I resolved to carry on the Vigilia tradition that my Polish grandmother lovingly invoked each Christmas Eve.

I learned to replicate the seven, nine or 11 course meal of the vigil celebrating Christ’s birth. I taught an initially resistant family the value of “coming home” to a feast of sights, sounds, smells and togetherness. Regardless of the stress of daily life, the comfort and ritual of Vigilia awaits.

I was hungry, physically and spiritually, and lonely one Christmas long ago. And it changed everything for me, for the better. Spiritual gifts don’t come in brightly wrapped packages, but in the quiet desperation of want and need.

Mary and the Christ Child are depicted in this 17th-century painting by Giovanni Battista Salvi. The feast of the Nativity of Christ, a holy day of obligation, is celebrated Dec. 25. (CNS/Bridgeman Images)