Column: Re-writing the rules for how we spend the holidays

It was hard not to fall asleep during Christmas Eve Mass.

The yearly ritual would always lull me to drowsiness, probably due to its two-and-a-half hour length being combined with enough incense to knock over a horse. The censer would always smoke like a house on fire, and it always made me wonder (although I know now) what a small metal burning chamber on the end of a chain had to do with the baby Jesus.

Spending part of Christmas Eve at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Milwaukee was always part of my family’s holiday traditions. After the service, we would head back to my grandma’s farmhouse for a meal of tuna casserole served with a side of shrimp. The seafood-based menu was a throwback to when Christmas Eve was a fast day for Catholics and meat wasn’t allowed.

We called the casserole “Tuna Surprise,” because Grandma forgot to put tuna in the first year she made it. No one noticed until halfway through the meal.

It was fidget-inducing torture having to wait for the other people at the table to finish while knowing that there were presents waiting to be ripped open in the other room just…out…of…reach. Eventually, my father would give us the go ahead (after all the dishes were washed by hand, the agony!) and my brother and I would race into the living room to start ripping wrapping paper.

All of that is gone now. St. Stanislaus is now home to the Milwaukee Latin Mass Community. The farmhouse was burned to the ground last year when the property was sold to a developer. My Grandma Alice is no longer with us, having died in March after a long and blessed life.

Our ritual for so many years was to spend the holiday on the slushy roads, dining in truck stops on the way to Milwaukee. That ended when Grandma moved up here last year, and I’m not sure any of us have really figured out what to do with Christmas yet. My wife and I both have family in town. It’s a challenge to figure out where to go when, because someone has to lose. With Milwaukee, that conundrum didn’t exist.

I’ll miss my grandma at Christmas time this year. I was lucky to have her for as long as I did, but it made the loss harder to bear in a way because I had grown to truly appreciate who she was and what she meant to me. She went out of her way to make things special, and they always were.

There were times I complained about going to Milwaukee: complained about the drive, complained about being away from friends, complained about having to do the same thing year-in, year-out. Now, I have none of those things to complain about, and I miss them. Frankly, I hope we can recreate the same kind of holiday stability I once took for granted.

It’s heartening to realize that every holiday tradition on Earth, no matter how old, had to start somewhere and was probably really awkward the first time it was done.

Whomever thought of St. Nicholas Day probably prayed their children didn’t ask them why exactly a saint came in the night to put candy in their shoes. Whoever said the first holiday church service probably thought it would never work, and that he’d be fired Dec. 26. Who knows?

My family is in the awkward phase now; I need to remember it will not always be so.