In December of 1952, I was in Sister Mary Applesauce’s sixth grade at Sacred Heart School in Whiting. I was also a member of the boys’ choir that would sing Christmas carols at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Along with seventh and eighth grade boys, Sacred Heart’s choir sounded angelic. For the better part of the year, we were mischievous, free spirited youths; but, at Christmastime, we transformed into pious, dignified, well-disciplined Catholic lads. We practiced daily in the downstairs parish hall giving us an hour respite from our daily diet of “applesauce” and salvation. Sister Melody guided and directed our voices into a heavenly chorale of altos, sopranos, and tenors. During rehearsal we were all business. We took Sister’s direction without nonsense or challenge. Vocal warm ups, breathing exercises, and melodic variations were practiced over and over. Suffice to say, as Christmas approached, the Sacred Heart Boys’ Choir sounded magnificent! Even so, once school had ended for the day, I focused on more pressing secular matters.
Excited with the anticipation of Christmas and full of the holiday spirit, I wanted to buy my mother a special gift. The major hindrance to this plan was lack of funds. Although money was scarce, by age 11, I had become financially resourceful. Without regular cash flow, I needed to find a dependable revenue supply.
Early on, around fourth grade, I discovered people threw away soda bottles and metal coat hangers. Pop bottles were worth two-cent each, and Kinanne’s Cleaners paid one-cent for every two coat hangers. Several times a week I would scrounge neighbor’s trash searching for discarded bottles and hangers. Occasionally, a Canfield’s bottle worth 5-cents would be discovered. Dozens of forays searching through neighborhood garbage cans over the summer and autumn had generated a tidy sum. Kindly merchants were always generous knowing I had not purchased the soda in their store, paid out the deposit regardless.
Comic books and small toys filled the bill for my brother and younger sister. Dad got a carton of Old Gold cigarettes; but I wanted to buy Mom something special. In spite of frugal budgeting my Christmas funds were nearly depleted. By the time I arrived at Sherman’s Indiana Supply store, I was down to my last dollar and coins. Sherman’s had a bright new store along 119th Street at Central Avenue. They sold hardware, paint, plumbing, and house wares. Mrs. Parker, the salesperson, helped me select a nice “Mom” gift—a 10” Pyrex pie-baking dish. With its scalloped edge, the glass dish resembled the one I had dropped and broke earlier while washing dishes. I handed Mrs. Parker the last of my funds—one dollar and fifty cents. Along with the receipt, she gave me eleven cents change. Wrapped in holiday paper printed with green holly and red berries the pie plate made an elegant gift. I took it home, wrote: “For Mom” on a gummed sticker, and when no one was watching, placed it under the tree.
Our family always opened gifts after six-o’clock on Christmas Eve. I learned later this was so we could wear something new to Midnight Mass. Mom said all the right things as she unwrapped my present. Later, dressed in a freshly unwrapped white shirt and dark trousers, bundled against the cold, Dad walked with my brother and me to Sacred Heart arriving at church around 10 o’clock. We went to the sacristy, put on our white cassock and surplus, and took our assigned places. Sister Superior, who was in charge of the entire choir, monitored our progress and behavior. We lined up according to grade and Sister gave each of us a booklet with the words to the carols. A small pump organ was placed in the Sanctuary. One of the parishioners, Melvin Schaffer, would be the choir’s accompanist.
At eleven o’clock we silently marched out and took our place behind the Communion rail. At selected intervals, a single lighted blue votive candle was positioned as marker indicating where to stand. Sixth-graders in the front row, seventh-graders in the middle row, and eight-graders in the back row. Sacred Heart Church was beautifully decorated for Christmas. The Nativity scene was on display to the side. Blue light bulbs formed a heavenly glow around the crib and figurines. Fresh evergreen trees decorated with lights and tinsel filled the sanctuary: pine-scented perfume added to the ambiance and majesty of the moment. The church was filled to capacity.
On cue, the organ played and we sang. We opened with “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and closed with “Silent Night.” Our English and Latin were flawless. The packed church beamed as our voices presented ageless hymns of Christmas. After our presentation, we silently walked to our places--folding chairs set up in the Sanctuary facing the main altar. Glancing at the congregation we saw proud parents and parishioners smiling through tearful eyes, the look on their faces conveyed approval and appreciation.
So many years ago, I learned the most important gifts in life are not things but matters of the heart. As proud as I was of that pie plate, it was the “giving” that became treasure. Faith, goodness, kindness, thoughtfulness, friendship, peace, generosity, time, and love become cherished gifts of Christmas. All who touched my life gave me these gifts. Merry Christmas, everyone.