Christmas Memory

This was written for a holiday variety show where I was on stage as the “visiting Protestant minister.” I appeared along with a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest. No joke.

“I am a Protestant pastor, but I grew up in the Greek Orthodox church. It was a great spiritual foundation. You need to know that Greek Orthodoxy is kind of like Catholicism before they modernized under the Vatican II Council. By the way, my family is very Greek. All four grandparents were immigrants and they spoke Greek at home. I went to Greek school (with all the other kids from church) every Tuesday and Thursday after American school was over.

My mom died the summer when I was twelve years old. That first Christmas without her was weird. We sat around the Christmas dinner table like there was an empty seat … or like we were a holiday jig-saw puzzle with a piece missing.

Then, a few years later, my dad married an American woman. I say that because, as far as the Greeks were concerned, it was a mixed marriage. But Christmases became a lot better.

My new mom wasn’t just American—she was blue-eyed, blonde, and Protestant—and we started going to a Presbyterian Church every other week. I didn’t mind it. Not only could I easily read the prayers along with everyone else during the service, the service itself was a lot shorter. We were out-of-there in under an hour. Truthfully, I had never heard a church service performed in English before that. And perhaps what impressed my adolescent boy’s mind the most was that the girls at a Protestant Church didn’t all look like my sister. (Um, just so you know, my sister is beautiful … but … well, um … you know what I mean.)

Christmastime was different at the Greek Orthodox Church. The priest and the cantor would sing something in Greek, sounding more like Middle-Eastern street performers than like Bing Crosby and Perry Como. If the Byzantine choir sang anything, it was always in a minor key. Anything Christmas-y happened during Sunday School in the separate building next door to the church. Truly, it’s not even officially Christmas until around the 7th of January in Orthodoxy.

I will never forget our first Christmas at the Protestant Church. We didn’t have to get as dressed up as we did when we went to the Orthodox Church We went on the night before Christmas. The stars were out in that cold, clear, black sky. The church windows glowed as we approached. And the Americans had decorated their building—oh, how it was decorated—with holly wreaths and mistletoe, with green garlands and gold bows, with red candles and twinkling white lights. A handbell choir rang out, Away in the Manger. The pastor spoke about the significance of Jesus’ birth in language even I could understand. We got to sing Christmas carols inside the church—songs like, O Come All Ye Faithful, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Silent Night.

There was even a tall Christmas tree in the front of the sanctuary, all lit-up with colored lights and ornaments, over a Nativity set. In my teenage imagination we were like the shepherds, all around, who had come to see the Christ-child. I could almost hear the lamb and cattle sounds. And I nearly caught a glimpse of angels making their rounds.”

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