‘What a Christmas Gift’

Well-known Catholics share special memories coupled with vocational and Eucharistic presents.

The best Gift of Christmas
The best Gift of Christmas (photo: Unsplash)

Christmas is a time when people carry on or at least remember favorite traditions, recall a memorable Christmas gift they received, and, most importantly, focus on something that helped highlight the real meaning of the season, the birth of Jesus. 

The Register asked some well-known Catholics to share their experiences and memories.


What is your most memorable Christmas gift?

Shawn Carney, president and CEO of 40 Days for Life, said his favorite gift when he was young was a Texas A&M starter jacket he got in the early 1990s. But that material gift eventually gave way to the most memorable of all. “We found out that we were having our third child, our son, the morning of Christmas Eve in 2007,” he recalled. “We were at Marilisa’s parents’ house. We already had two baby girls. She had the feeling she was pregnant and took a test on Christmas Eve, and then we told the whole family on Christmas Day. It was just beautiful timing. There’s nothing like it — finding out you’re having a baby on Christmas Eve.”

The baby was their first son, Seamus.

The most memorable Christmas gift Father Roger Landry, Catholic chaplain at Columbia University, ecclesiastical assistant to Aid to the Church in Need USA, and frequent Register contributor, ever received “was the four-volume Butler’s Lives of the Saints as an 18-year-old college freshman,” he told the Register. “I devoured the stories each night throughout college and beyond, and it had a huge impact on stoking my double vocation to sanctity and to the priesthood.”

Kimberly Hahn, author, speaker and wife of theologian Scott Hahn, shared her most memorable gift. “Catholics can receive the Eucharist every day of the year. But for Protestants, Dec. 24 is the only day, every year, that a Protestant can count on attending church. That is my birthday.

“Long before I knew Jesus wanted to give me himself in the Eucharist, going to a service on my birthday was the highlight. I had birthday gifts earlier that day and would open Christmas gifts later that night. And in the middle of all of these gifts, we would celebrate the Greatest Gift — Jesus. Year after year, I believe Our Lord planted a seed in my heart to long to worship him on Christmas Eve in the fullness of the gift of his Son in the Blessed Sacrament, which I did in 1990.”

Marian Father Chris Alar, the provincial superior of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy Province of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, recalled that, in 2004, in the fall, a priest came to bless his house. “It was during that blessing that he asked out of the blue if I ever felt I had a call to the priesthood,” Father Alar said. “I was so shocked by it. What is it that made that priest ask me?” Then came that Christmas; Father Alar recounted that he was praying on Christmas Day. “And that’s when I really heard the call to the priesthood. It was on Christmas. I hear very clearly the call that I’m being called to the priesthood. And I remember thinking, ‘What a Christmas gift.’ It took me actually two and a half years to answer. But that call that I heard was emphatically and unquestionably and undeniably on Christmas. So I consider that is the greatest Christmas gift because that was on Christmas of 2004.”

Catholic husband-and-wife speakers and authors Bobby and Jackie Angel shared special memories, too: “One of the biggest Christmas gifts we received was our son who was born on the 23rd of December. We were told to expect him early in the month, so Advent was truly a season of anxiously — if not impatiently, at times — waiting, week by week, for our child to arrive. ‘How long, O Lord?’ we wondered.

“We could easily put ourselves in the shoes of the Holy Family anticipating their child, as well as the longing for the people of ancient Israel for their Messiah to come. Our son was thankfully born with ease. We were home by Christmas Eve and managed to make Christmas Day Mass to celebrate the feast of God who himself became a baby boy.”


What Christmas experience brought home to you the real reason for the season — the birth of Jesus?

“This goes back to our children,” Carney explained. “I remember going to Mass in 2006. We had these two beautiful baby girls in red dresses with red bows. And as Christmas Mass started, I just thought, ‘Life can’t possibly get better than that.’ I’m just so blessed that I’m sitting here on Christmas holding these two beautiful little girls. That was definitely the best Christmas ever.” The Carneys now have 10 children.

Father Landry well remembers how, as a young parish priest, he would stay up between the Christmas vigil Mass and the midnight Mass by bringing Holy Communion to the homebound throughout the parish. “I’ll never forget the longing, tears and ineradicable happiness some elderly parishioners showed when the same Christ who was adored in Bethlehem and who would soon come for them at the end of their life came to them on Christmas,” he explained. “It was ‘history, mystery and majesty’ all in one.”

Hahn said she loved the traditions of the Advent wreath and singing carols as a family growing up. “Scott and I continued these traditions in our home as Catholics, with the added caveat of having separate song sheets of Advent carols and Christmas carols. I keep them on my computer and reprint them before the First Sunday of Advent. And I send the file to my married children, so they can do the same.”

She continued, “When our children were young and we gathered with our Protestant family for Christmas, it seemed as if our children didn’t know Christmas carols because we hadn’t practiced them. But over time, I was less concerned about how it appeared and more focused on keeping this new tradition of Advent carols that speak of the longing for the coming Messiah before singing Christmas carols during the Christmas season.”

For his experience, Father Alar shared that one of his female friends in college “got married, and she had her first baby on Christmas, a Christmas baby. I remember going to the hospital because she was such a good friend. And I remember when she was holding the baby, it just somehow sunk into me — birth on Christmas. It was one of the best Christmas experiences, to really contemplate … a soul becoming flesh. And it just was so amazing to see this little part of her, and she was such a good friend. It really made me think that you have to wonder what Mary must have felt giving birth to the God-man who took flesh on that day. It was a really moving experience.”

Bobby Angel remembers how, in high school, their parish youth group did a clothing drive, “then on Christmas Day, in the evening, we went to the downtown park to hand out clothing and give some simple meals to the homeless. It really hammered home to me gratitude for what I’ve been given, as well as the need to make a gift of myself, as Christ did through his incarnation.”


What might be your favorite or most memorable Christmas tradition or traditions?

“We process through the house singing, to place Baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas Eve,” Carney recalled. “We always go to the vigil Mass on Christmas Eve.” Back home, “Everybody gets a new pair of pajamas. Marilisa’s family comes over, we have tons of food, and we have a Christmas Eve party. It’s a lot of fun. I think it’s the best time of year.”

For Hahn, preparation is key. “We decorate early. The point is not that we fail as converts to honor Advent. Many beautiful European traditions involve waiting to decorate, but it is not ‘the’ Catholic way of preparing your home. By decorating early, every room says, ‘He’s coming! He’s coming! Get ready to welcome him!’ With the work done, I am able more fully to enter into the meditation aspect of Advent, which is the goal: By the First Sunday of Advent, our boxes of decorations will be empty and our home will be full of the message, ‘Prepare your heart for the greatest gift ever known: Jesus!’”

The Hahn family has collected many Nativity sets from around the world, and it’s the grandchildren’s job to remember the Child. “I don’t place Baby Jesus. I wrap all of the Baby Jesus figures in tissue and place them in a basket for the grandchildren to unwrap and place on Christmas Day.”

Father Alar well remembers the family tradition from his mother’s Czechoslovakian heritage. “We had a tradition of opening our gifts on Christmas Eve. My understanding is that is a Christian-Catholic European tradition that they opened their gifts on Christmas Eve. That tradition I always remember so well. How beautiful it was because our family would come together.” The gifts were opened “in the spirit of when the Magi visited Christ. It was just amazing to be able to open those gifts earlier, which was a tradition that ended up really being a family bonding. And then we went to midnight Mass. So it is a small tradition, but a very impactful one.”

Jackie Angel explained the Angels’ favorite family tradition. “We love this ‘Donkey in the Living Room’ activity that allows for our kids to unwrap a section of the Nativity leading up to Christmas. The kids look forward to it every year, and it’s such a creative showing of all the figures — and animals — involved in Jesus’ birth.”

Father Landry shared how he has “always loved midnight Mass, a love that’s grown as a priest. It shows that Jesus is worth getting or staying up for and worth adapting our whole schedule to celebrate. I have always loved the Christmas carols sung before the midnight Mass, especially, in the two French-Canadian parishes where I served, singing Minuit Chrétiens (O Holy Night) right before the start of midnight Mass.”