Holidays: it’s funny the things you remember

From Christmas at Grandma’s to midnight Mass viewed from the sacristy, memories abound

By George Valadie

I can recall it as clearly and vividly as just about any memory I have of Christmases past. It’s not particularly holy, nor would it ever make a good Hallmark movie.

But it’s stuck there and still makes me smile.

We—me, my three younger sisters, and my mom and dad—were all gathered at my grandparents’ home one wintry evening during a Christmas vacation many, many years ago.

Grandma was a wonderful cook. Bellies were full; dishes were done.

The radio was playing holiday music, and I have no doubt we were singing along. Our family did that sometimes. We weren’t any good, but we didn’t know it.

It was a small home, so some of us had gathered in the kitchen while others were in the dining room—but all of us were busily stringing popcorn for the tree that would be going up at our own house any day.

I was 11, it was 1964, and school was out for the holidays. Just down the street the signage that sat atop what was then the city’s only real toy store tallied the remaining “days until Christmas.” And the numbers had dwindled to single digits.

I’m not sure life could have gotten any better. The anticipation of Christmas seemed almost as good as the real thing.

That’s when I had my first beer.

As if the evening wasn’t already perfect enough, our dad had splurged and bought all us kids a milkshake, while he opted for an adult beverage.

Head down, committed to the task, engrossed in sewing the longest and best-looking strand, I reached for my chocolate shake and took a huge gulp.

I think it was a Schlitz. Could have been a Pabst Blue Ribbon, but it wasn’t chocolate, and it wasn’t mine.

I can no longer recall if I’ve ever strung popcorn again, but I can definitively say I’ve never had another sip of beer.

It’s funny the things you remember.

There are others that dance through my brain now and again.

Years later, I was in college, and I was in love.

Home for the holidays, it was a Christmas Eve when Nancy and I had already enjoyed an evening of dinner and gift-giving with her family.

Young and fancy free, the two of us made the last-minute decision to attend our parish’s midnight Mass that had begun at 11:30. At least the music had. So we were much too last-minute to find an available seat.

Not to be denied, we brazenly knocked on the door of the rectory. We shared our dilemma with our associate pastor, a young priest with whom we had grown very close, and he invited us (allowed us) to attend Mass while sitting in the sacristy that sat just off the sanctuary.

He unknowingly blessed us with an unusual and what felt like an oddly perfect view—some five feet from the altar—for welcoming the newborn King.

It’s funny the things you remember.

He may have let us in because earlier that week, my best friend and I had volunteered to brave the cold and assist this same priest when the pastor assigned him the duty of setting up the manger scene that needed to be erected in its traditional spot in front of the church.

Setting it up proved to be the easy part. The true task turned out to be finding, retrieving, and transporting all the various people and parts. The manger scene was used but once a year, so the three of us had to descend into and dig about in the spider-webbed and seldom-visited basement that served as storage for candles, years of discarded junk, and home for an occasional mouse or two.

You’d think it would be simple to spot what amounted to a small life-sized village what with kings and crowns and all. But not so much. Once located, we had to lug all of them, the barn and some well-worn sheep, up from darkness to the light of day.

Freezing and punch drunk and don’t ask me why, but we took turns imagining the life of a shepherd during the days of that first Christmas some 2,000 years before.

I don’t know how many years we helped him set up but when his call for “shepherd duty” came, we were happy to report for duty.

It’s funny the things you re­mem­ber.

Not too many holidays ago, my mom decided she just didn’t feel like messing with a tree. Too much trouble to put up. Too much trouble to take down. No one there to enjoy it but her. Yada-yada-yada.

I gave her hell.

We’d all volunteered to assist, but she was determined to rebuff our efforts. And to me it felt like an unspoken admission that she’d been feeling old and lonely and was soon to move on.

I’m sure I didn’t want any of that to be true because of course it would mean I hadn’t been a very good son.

Not that a Christmas tree would fix that.

Six weeks later, Nancy and I let ourselves in to her home while she was at work, ventured into her attic, and retrieved the tree she had avoided. We set it up in her living room and decorated it with hundreds of goofy little “Be Mine” Valentines.

And she gave me hell.

It’s funny the things you remember.

With COVID-19 easing its grip ever so slightly, I—like many—are hoping this year’s Christmas season will once again allow families and friends to gather. And make memories.

Before time gets away.

Both mom and dad are gone now; so is my fellow shepherd and best friend as well as that young priest—all celebrating this year’s holidays in the presence of the newborn King Himself.

How cool is that!

So I doubt they’ll need them, but I wonder if you get to keep your memories when you get to heaven. Or maybe just the good ones? Or maybe the ones when you made others smile and laugh and love?

Maybe that’s what we can do for each other when we gather together this holiday.

Because it’s funny the things they’ll remember.

Dear God—Happy birthday! If you get candles on your cake, we can probably guess your wish. May we be part of making it come true every day. Amen.


George Valadie resides in Chattanooga and is a parishioner at St. Stephen Church.

Comments 5

  1. It is always a joy to experience the writing of George, my fellow classmate ’71 at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.
    I am so proud of who he has become and of his accomplishments. It is good to call him friend.
    Merry Christmas George and family.

  2. George, Thank you for using the gift God bestowed upon you…to make us smile, think about our memories and the need to create new ones. Also, to think about Jesus’ birth, and all of those we love who are sharing their day with Him.

  3. I had to smile when I read this…. “Just down the street the signage that sat atop what was then the city’s only real toy store tallied the remaining “days until Christmas.” And the numbers had dwindled to single digits.” Thanks for the exciting memory from our childhood!”

    Merry Christmas!

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