Christmas Isn’t Christmas Until Nativity Time

The marathon between Thanksgiving and the beginning of January has started. The never-ending cooking, baking, buying, wrapping, cleaning and decorating that culminates in cranky exhaustion for most of us, is not what Christmas is about for me. For some, the waking up Christmas morning to a tree barely visible through the mountains of piled presents under and around it makes it all worth it. For others, it’s overindulging in their favorite treats. That’s all good and fine if that’s what you’re into.

For me, Christmas isn’t Christmas until I get the email from Debbie Fahey at the Cathedral of St. Joseph telling me when the Nativity setup is scheduled. The day arrives, when master carpenter and leader of our merry band of working elves, Dave Leech, comes all the way from Columbus to build a true masterpiece. For those who haven’t seen it, the Cathedral has two smaller altar coves at either side of the main altar. We take over the left side one. We build a two-tiered stage, surrounded by a steel frame that will be the site of our Nativity. Surrounded by gorgeously designed, blue-black velvet draperies lit to simulate the twinkling starry night in Bethlehem, the beautiful handmade Fontanini plaster figures represent the holiest of nights. We set them to look as if frozen in time, to see the newborn Baby Jesus. It takes us about a day and a half to finish the setup, between the carpentry, steel-framing and electrical lighting work. But it is a labor of love and a joy to see it come alive.

Work in progress: left, Dave Leech; and right, Don Gruber, left, and Jacob Manning, prepare for the Nativity setup.

By the second day, we are also surrounded by Cathedral parishioners who are cleaning and dusting everything in sight, to prepare for the Christmas decorations. Monsignor Kevin has wonderful Christmas music playing, and everyone happily joins in the setup of wreaths, ribbons, two giant trees behind the main altar and the live tree by the entrance baptismal font. Debbie provides pizza and beverages, and we take turns taking snack brakes. By the end of the day, not only have I finished the Nativity with my fellow crew members, but the entire Cathedral is awash in even more color and light! The beautiful finishing touch to this setting are mounds of bright red and white poinsettias that warm the space even more.

In my family, we love capping a big dinner feast on Christmas Eve by going to Midnight Mass. And yes, at the Cathedral, it is celebrated at midnight! Everyone wears their holiday best, and I break out my red coat. As soon as the clock strikes 12, the lights get dimmed to almost complete darkness. We start lighting each other’s candles that we picked up as we entered on our way to our pews. It starts all the way in the back, and by the time the last one is lit in the front, our cantor starts to chant the recorded dates in relation to this sacred event. When he finishes, the Cathedral comes to full light, the choir starts singing, and Monsignor and his crew make their way from the front entrance, down the aisle toward the main altar. Incense is wafting, the candles are put out, and the whole world rejoices!

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The Mass is so beautiful, and the choir sings like angels have taken over. When it’s finished, your heart feels lighter. Hope and joy fill every parishioner as they wish each other a Merry Christmas. Families take pictures, all dressed up, by the twinkling decorations and the Nativity. As you leave, Monsignor hands out candy canes.

We return to our homes, and we tuck children in bed —  before Santa arrives, and the little “sweethearts” wake up at the crack of dawn for opening presents. Yes, we go through the typical morning of ripping paper, oohs and ahhhs, but nothing can beat the experience of attending Christmas Mass at the Cathedral.

You would think it’s over after that, but no! We follow by celebrating the Feast of the Holy Family, the model that we all strive as parents and children to emulate. And as a Puerto Rican born and bred, one of the things that I love about Monsignor is his love of the Wise Men and the celebration of Epiphany.

He places the figures during setup day, all the way by the baptismal font. As the season progresses, these figures are lovingly moved along in small increments along towards the Nativity. They “arrive” just in time for the celebration of Epiphany or “Little Christmas,” as some people like to call it. We rejoice in the celebration of God revealing his Love Incarnate to mortals, and the wisdom of these men who endured long distances to welcome and glorify the Christ Child.

Many people think of Christmas as a season of celebration that goes from December to New Year’s Day in January. In my opinion, it’s too much work for such a short season.

At the Cathedral, our beautiful decorations, music and celebrations last until about mid-January, when we celebrate the Lord’s Baptism. It is, after all, a season of celebration of the Love that God has for us. It might be cold and dreary outside during winter, but inside the Cathedral, you are surrounded by color and warmth. Come celebrate with us!

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Vivienne Padilla is an alumna of the University of Notre Dame. She has worked as an industrial designer and graphic design director for companies such as Graphic Design Continuum and Design Forum, and also has taught in many capacities, including as a guest instructor at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. She is the chairperson for Community !MPACT Coalition in Wheeling. She also is the mother to a wonderful son and a fantastic daughter.

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