Christmas Eve: Anticipation
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
—Luke 1:39-45 (Read Luke 1)
When I was a kid, I waited all year, every year, in great anticipation for the hands-down best day of the year: Christmas Eve.
I realize that this did not make me unique among little boys. Which one doesn’t love Christmas?
But I’m specifically talking about Christmas Eve. The day before Christmas. The most anticipated day in my family’s year.
Christmas Eve was the one day of the year when I would get dressed up to go to church without prompting, and when I would start bugging my parents early: “Is it time to go yet?”
Back then, Christmas Eve started with going with my parents to Mass at 4:30 p.m. But the real fun of Christmas Eve got started after church, when we showed up at Uncle Joe and Aunt Rosie’s house to celebrate that most amazing of Italian-American holiday traditions: the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
My mother was one of six children, and all of them lived in the same small ethnic western Pennsylvania mill town. I am an only child, the youngest of 16 first cousins, and the most thrilling moment of every year was when we would walk through Uncle Joe’s garage and into the finished basement. This is where the Christmas tree was lit up and where mounds of presents were waiting to be unwrapped. This is where 60 of my closest relatives gathered in this tiny house to celebrate the Most Wonderful Day of the Year.
First, we would feast on the “seven fishes,” the seafood dishes that had been prepared in the tradition of our southern Italian ancestors to commemorate the Vigil of waiting for midnight, that mystical moment that signified the birth of the baby Jesus.
Then we would gather downstairs around the lit-up Christmas tree to open the gifts that everyone had brought for everyone else. Cousin Paul would prepare his best Santa voice, choose a gift from the top of the pile, and announce loudly, “To Cousin Vince from Aunt Rosie!” or, “To Cousin Angela from Uncle Al!” and we would claim our presents and tear into the gift-wrap with abandon.
Later, the aunts and uncles would gather upstairs with their coffee and wine and dessert, and the cousins would stay downstairs, playing with our new toys, eating cookies and sipping ginger ale.
Somewhere around 2 a.m., we would start bundling up to head home.
Those evenings are my greatest memories from my childhood.
More than 2,000 years before my family celebrations, two pregnant cousins reunited, and the baby in the womb of the one leapt for joy at the anticipation of the birth of the other.
How could Elizabeth and Mary have even begun to imagine that, two millennia later, millions of people would commemorate the birth of Mary’s son with worship services and seafood feasts and twinkling lights and the exchange of presents?
Christmas Eve is still the most anticipated day of the year for me. It looks different today than it did when I was a kid, and I sometimes mourn that my daughters haven’t grown up with the joyful chaos of my loud extended Italian-American family in the same way that I did.
But I am grateful that the anticipation I feel today is for more than food and family and brightly-colored packages.
In the years since those joy-filled Christmas Eves of my childhood, I have come to believe and follow the One whose birth we celebrate at Christmastime. I have come to trust that He will come again.
The anticipation I experience today is for the fulfillment of the promise of the Incarnation. It is for the fullness of the Kingdom to come, the hope for the restoration of all things.
This Christmas Eve, I wait for a gift that is richer and more wonderful than even my most treasured childhood memories.
May this amazing gift bring you unimaginable joy, this Christmas and always. God bless you on this day of great anticipation.
Vince Burens is the President and CEO of the CCO. He has served in various roles on CCO staff since first joining staff in 1999.