58: O Wholly Overwhelming Night

58: O Wholly Overwhelming Night

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Christmas

O Wholly Overwhelming Night

A child is a curly dimpled lunatic.

~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Christmas Eve children’s service overflowed with little ones, laughter, and anticipation. Kids squirmed in holiday dresses or once-a-year ties in the crowded pews. To entertain the families squeezed into every possible seat, piano students pounded “Silent Night” or “The First Noel” on the choir director’s piano. When their turns ended, they rushed back to their smiling parents and grandparents.

My little family missed most of this. We decided to forgo getting seats at the children’s service in favor of a shorter wait time beforehand. Our younger daughter, two-and-a-half-year-old Mary Claire, has been nicknamed “Our Lady of Perpetual Motion.” She needed room to roam so we were off standing at the back of the church anyway.

We strolled into church just before Father Jim began his procession. Twinkling lights and Christmas hymns greeted us. I spied an opening near the low baptismal font. It provided some breathing room, perfect for a toddler on the move. A few minutes later, my husband came in from parking the car and we stood together, holding hands, for the opening prayers.

When Father Jim called the children forward for the Christmas story, the real magic began. Each Christmas Eve, he creates a giant flannel storyboard on his vestments and robes. The little ones place felt pieces of the story — cutout sheep, shepherds, baby Jesus — on his vestments. By the end, Father Jim is covered with fabric, the children enjoy the story, and the congregation giggles at the show.

Our older daughter, a kindergartner, grinned with excitement. She was in charge this year, and took her role seriously. Throughout December she had “practiced” reenacting the Christmas story with our toy nativity set. She’d perched her little sister on her lap and told the story — with a few fractured carols sprinkled in — over and over. It always ended with a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Jesus.

I watched nervously as our girls walked hand-in-hand down the long center aisle for the children’s message. Kids poured out of every pew, clamoring for a seat on the altar steps. We were on high alert, afraid Mary Claire might make a run for it. We didn’t need to be. Our daughters sat sweetly side by side in their fancy holiday dresses and hung on every word. My eyes were damp when Father Jim finished and the girls ran back toward us. I hugged them tightly. What a special Christmas this was becoming!

Yet as the service continued, Mary Claire’s patience wore thin. She hadn’t napped enough that day. My husband sent me “the look.” He thought it was time to go. I waved him off. I was high on Christmas spirit and didn’t want the joy to end.

“Look at Father Jim,” I whispered quietly into Mary Claire’s ear. “He is saying prayers for Baby Jesus!” She watched for a moment. I pointed toward the lights on the Christmas tree. “Aren’t they pretty? Look at all the colors!”

The distractions worked. Soon her hot baby breath whispered questions into my ear. Pleased with my solution, I caught my husband’s eye and smiled. “See!” my confident smile said. “We’re good. I’ve got this!” In my smugness, I wasn’t paying attention when a few moments later, another question came.

“Mama, who’s that?” she whispered, while her chubby finger pointed toward the large stained glass window on our left.

“That’s Jesus,” I answered.

“What’s he doing?” she hesitantly asked.

And then I did it. Unthinkingly, and with complete disregard for the not-even-three-year-old sensibility, I answered, “That is when he dies.”

A quiet moment settled over the church. Then she erupted.

“He DIES?” she shrieked. “Baby Jesus DIES? HE WAS JUST BORN!”

My mind raced to catch up as she shouted louder and clearer than I thought was possible.

“Noooo!” she sobbed. Every person around us turned to look while I frantically tried to undo what I’d done. “Of course he was just born! Today is Jesus’s birthday! Yay! Hurray for Baby Jesus!”

It was too late. She sobbed with all the grief a child can muster. Tears slid down her flushed round cheeks faster than I could wipe them. Despite the understanding smile and stifled chuckle of the grandmother nearby, I knew it was time to go. I looked toward my husband, who already had our five-year-old bundled up and the activity bags packed. I had never been more grateful to him as we made our quick exit.

At home, with presents under the tree and carols in the background, we returned our little family’s attention to the celebration of the season. Bedtime stories and cookies for Santa restored the magic. With the kids tucked into their beds, my husband and I laughed and laughed over the evening’s events and the unpredictability of children.

~Katie O’Connell

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