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Four Years at the Mount

Christmas Thoughts

December 2014

A very merry Christmas season

Sarah Muir
MSM Class of 2018

In my family it always starts in November. The smell of Halloween candy and cinnamon, McIntosh apple candles has been wafted away and is replaced by the smells of balsam fir and baked goods. Throughout this month garland is strung, stockings are hung, nutcrackers and Santa Clause figurines are placed on mantles, and at least two of the many Christmas trees that adorn our home are decorated. All of these cheerful holiday ordainments are placed strategically around the house so one can scarcely turn round without seeing something infused with the holiday spirit; and this is just November. As soon as Thanksgiving is over, dozens upon dozens of cookies are made and it is finally time to buy the Christmas tree. This has always been somewhat of an event in my household. There is a small family-owned farm nearby my home where we cut our own Christmas tree, but not just any Christmas tree. There are certain specifications that need to be met: it must be full, it must be wide, and it must be tall enough to reach the ceiling. After the tree is bought and brought into the house, we cut the netting incasing it and watch as it spreads open with a burst of pine needles and cold air that smells like a forest covered in frost. As the tree settles and while the cookies and hot chocolate are being made, we carry up the decorations and sort through the lights and beads that have become tangled together in the past long months. After everything is in order, we begin. By the end the tree is laden with white, gold, flame-like lights, and shining baubles that adorn every branch. Some ornaments hold special meaning; some are childhood pictures or old arts and crafts projects, two are a matching pair from my parentsí honeymoon, and some are gifts or heirlooms brought from faraway places. The angel on top dwarfs in comparison to the rest of the tree and her dress is rather plain in contrast to the treeís splendor, but weíve had her for ages, and every year she has maintained her silence vigil atop the tree, keeping watch over the houseís inhabitance. This all may sound like a little too much Christmas spirit, but it has been this way for as long as I can remember and truly I would not want it any other way.

The first Christmas I can remember is when I was seven years old. There is a certain excitement surrounding Christmas that induces a kind of restless sleep. You stay up late, ears straining to hear the sound of sleigh bells and hooves tapping on shingles. You eventually fall asleep, but when you wake up a few hours later you do not remember precisely when you gave in to slumber. Itís early in the morning now, still dark, and your parents are still sleeping as you creep down the stairs. You turn on the lights on the tree and gaze at the luminous picture before you, filled with an indescribable feeling, but itís something akin to wonderment. Everything is still as you slowly approach the glimmering tree, scarcely breathing in fear that you might break the spell that seems to have been placed over the whole house. The house itself seems to be holding its breath. All is still and quiet except for the occasional small pop of a floorboard or the soft clink of the radiator. Your eyes tear themselves away from the scene to the set of packages nestled below, but you can worry about those later. Right now you sit, cross-legged in front of the tree, enjoying the absolute silence and thinking about everything and nothing at all.

This is how all my Christmases begin. And so it began eleven years ago. I woke up, tiptoed ever so stealthily down the stairs until I stood in front of the colossal Christmas tree. I waited for who knows how long until my sister came down to join me. We tried, we really did try to give our parents an extra hour or so to sleep in, but the willpower of two children crumbles in the midst of gifts from Father Christmas. We started subtlety rattling the boxes, hoping the noise might wake our parents; it did not. We spoke a little louder than our previous whispers; still nothing. Finally, my sister convinced me to wake them. So I did. I snuck into their room and gently shook them awake and after much grumbling, yawning, and shuffling of feet, we were all downstairs as a family, opening gifts and laughing while my father filmed us. I donít really remember what I got that Christmas (I do remember one involved some sort of chocolate), but I will never forget what that day felt like. I do hate to sound clichť, but it wasnít the presents that I will cherish, but rather the faces of my family that will always be imprinted on my heart. And with that, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!

Read other articles by Sarah Muir

A holiday to remember

Leeanne Leary
Class of 2017

Middle school really wasnít that long ago, about 6 years, but for some reason I canít seem to remember much from those times. Perhaps because they were the most awkward years of my life. All I really remember at a glance is my 7th grade social studies teacher and eating lunch at a long table against the window. For this reason, I didnít expect to recall much when looking back on the holidays from this period. Unsurprisingly, I remember nothing from 7th grade Christmas, but when I was thinking about 8th grade Christmas, I became overwhelmed with the memories from that time period.

I remember a few small details, like asking for a camera as a gift and buying my dad signs for his new billiards room. I remember going to mass and freezing because the heat was broken. I recall distinctly struggling to Christmas shop for my "boyfriend" of 3 weeks. Boys and brothers are hard to shop for now, but an 8th grade boy who I knew next to nothing aboutóthat was nearly impossible. Iím sure it isnít actually impossible; Iím sure he had a hobby or collected something interesting, but it was impossible for me. So clearly the only choice was to end the relationship on Christmas Eve. I remember this Instant Messaging conversation clearly. I began this Christmas with a middle school heartbreakócomparable now to the fleeting sadness I feel when I drop my food or drink, but at the time it was quite a big deal.

I didnít know that I was about to experience what would now be some of my favorite memories. This Christmas was the first and last holiday I would ever spend with my whole family. For the past 13 years we had always been missing my Uncle Frank, who lived in Arizona for the majority of my life. The summer before 8th grade he moved back to the East Coast and was there for the first time. He brought the strangest gifts. As my sisteróhis goddaughterómet him for the first time in person, he gave her a rifle that he had rebuilt and refurbished. He brought my brother an interesting shaving kit that was set up in a mug that nobody could figure out. He brought me a Mountaineers Basketball sweatshirt that I still to this day have not worn because he underestimated my size, but I still have it. Basically, he didnít hit the nail on the head with the practicality of his gifts, but he gave us all something so much more that Christmas. He brought his presence, which I didnít even realize had been missing for my whole life. Suddenly my mom and the rest of my aunts and uncles seemed complete again in the simplest ways. They could tell stories now that they had never told before and take their first full family photo since my Momís wedding. I finally met the crazy older brother who built a BMX course in the backyard and shoved French fries in my momís mouth when she fell asleep. Having my Uncle Frank there for the first time made this holiday so memorable alone, but it was also my last holiday with my grandma, Nana.

My grandma was the glue that held the family together, and as overused as that phrase may be, there is no better way to explain it. She was strong when we lost family members and strong for the rest of us when she was in the hospital. She loved each of us uniquely and although she never let me have any of her chocolate mints, she was my favorite person in the world. She wasnít the typical image of a grandmother with a large family; she wasnít outgoing, she didnít bake, and she wasnít outwardly affectionate, but she was the strongest woman Iíve ever met. She dealt with the loss of her husband and daughter and never grew bitter. She was intelligent and stubborn and loved the same books I did. This Christmas was the last holiday we had together as a family with both my uncle and Grandma, and I will never forget the way my Nanaís face lit up when she saw her children all together again. She didnít talk during any of their stories and she didnít tell any stories of her own, but she just watched. Her look of pure joy is my favorite thing to picture from this Christmas. She had never seen her son interact with her grandchildren and hadnít seen all of her children together in nearly 15 years. Her happiness is the sole reason I canít look back on this last holiday together with anything but bliss.

I didnít appreciate it then as much as I do now. Partly because I thought it would be the first of many and not the one and only, but mostly because I was 14 and didnít take in what was important. Now that I can picture the scene in my head, all I can see is completeness and pure delight. I experienced my family in a way I never have before and havenít since, and it would be easy to be sad about this. It would be easy to not want to continue to go to my auntís house for the holidays because the memories could be sad, but instead we choose every year to come together to remember the joy we felt when we were all together and embrace what we have now. Thatís what I want to encourage everyone to do this Christmas, to appreciate everything and everyone. Even appreciate your cousin who wonít stop nagging you to color when all you want to do is watch Home Alone, and your great uncle who tells you stories that cannot possibly be even remotely true. The holidays bring families and people together like nothing else does. I watched as everyone left every worry behind and came together to share in the love and joy that only Christmas can bring. This will always be my favorite way to picture my family, complete.

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Crimson Tide Christmas

Lydia Olsen
Class of 2016

Christmas Eve quickly turned into Christmas morning and I was still wide-awake. Even at seventeen years old my mom reminded me that Santa was not going to come until I was sound asleep. I remember looking at her, frustrated and rolling my eyes while responding, "Donít think that will happen tonight, mom." It was the first time in a long time that I had given up on preheating the oven, carefully cutting the dough, and waiting for the cookies to bake to perfection. My mom had even laid out the hand painted reindeer plate my sister Kelsey had made when she was just a few years old, but Santa would not be receiving any homemade cookies from my oven this year and the reindeer would go without carrots. I was simply too busy!

I sat on the carpeted floor of my bedroom and sighed loudly. Piles of clothing encompassed me. This little blue duffle bag was looking smaller and smaller by the moment. How was I ever supposed to fit everything I would need for eleven days into it? I came to the conclusion that it was just not possible. I pushed everything around me to the side and decided I would save it all for later. I walked down the hall, said goodnight and Merry Christmas to my family, then plopped into bed, wrapping myself in my heated blanket and enjoying it while I could.

When I woke again, the joy of Christmas day filled my heart. I was excited and cheerful, becoming child-like once again. I tiptoed over to my sistersí rooms and woke them with lots of shaking and happiness. Then we traveled downstairs as we shielded our eyes from the tree and presents in the living room, not wanting to ruin the surprise just yet. "Mom! Wake up!" We cheered as we rocked her, at moments being cruel enough to grab her blankets out from under her arms. "Fine, fine," she said as she rolled out of bed and followed her three daughters to the Christmas tree. Once upstairs she headed off to the kitchen to prepare breakfast while my sisters and I searched for the hidden pickle ornament on the tree. We gently shoved and tricked each other, taking the competition way too seriously. "Ha! Ha!" Jenna yelled as she grabbed the green, bumpy pickle ornament from the tree. "Ugh," Kelsey and I said in unison as we passed her the gift under the tree saved specifically for whoever was lucky enough to find the ornament this year.

My mom came back into the room and we all eagerly waited to open our presents. This year, mom tried to be tricky and did not write our names on the outside or put any tags on the boxes. Instead she put the first letter of our name on the inside flap of the wrapping paper. She thought it was a good idea because Jenna, even at the age of 23 at the time, could not resist opening a present with her name on it. To avoid Jenna opening her presents prematurely, this year Mom did not let any of the labels show. However, this idea did not work as well as planned. Somehow the initials got lost in the excitement and we all ended up just opening presents and then figuring out to whom they were supposed to go.

My gifts were pretty easily identifiable. They all revolved around camping in one way or another: a new mummy sleeping bag, about a million socks, a traveling fleece blanket, and small containers of shampoo, conditioner, and toothpaste. Later on, my dad and grandparents showered me with similar gifts: a warm hat, construction gloves, and a small backpack. They were all preparing me for the adventure I was about to be immersed within. Christmas day continued on with so much joy and lots of laughter, but it was safe to say that I was kind of distracted. After multiple delicious meals we all shared in each otherís presence, we decided to watch a movie and then turn in for the night. I still had more packing to do and went off to my room to finally figure everything out. I decided on which sweatshirts and sweatpants to bring, came to the conclusion that 15 pairs of socks would be enough, and stuffed my long underwear into my duffle bag. I remember saying, "I guess thatís it," because I just didnít have any more room. I went to bed early that Christmas night because I had a big day ahead of me.

On the second day of Christmas I got up bright and early and packed my things into my momís car. She drove me the short distance to my high school, where I was greeted by 14 other students and a handful of staff members. We all packed our things into two large vans along with our construction equipment. I gave my mom a big hug and kiss before settling into the van for the long drive ahead. The third day of Christmas consisted of a different kind of traveling. Eventually we arrived at a campground in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where we unpacked our things and set up our tents before making a campfire and playing a couple of games. It was on that third day of Christmas that we did not realize how cold the nights were going to be. It was on that day that my friend Eva was convinced that she would get too hot if she slept in long pants but before the start of the fourth day, she realized she was very wrong.

On the fourth day of Christmas we started at our service site, where we learned all about the tornado that had just come through that spring, ripping out the houses and taking nearly everything from the townís inhabitants. On the fifth day of Christmas, as we helped put up the walls of the new house we were working on with Habitat for Humanity and realized that it was socially acceptable to say "Roll Tide" in nearly every sentence, we noticed the metal siding that still hung from the tops of trees, where it had been tossed in the storm. On the sixth day we had made it through the 15-degree weather and were lucky enough to get to go on the University of Alabama football field before getting the most delicious burgers and French fries. On the seventh day of Christmas, the walls of the house were finally up and we met the future homeowner, who shared his stories of devastation and triumph with us. On the eighth day of Christmas I explored when I should have been hammering and came across all that remained of the part of a wall that read, "Home Sweet Home." On the ninth day of Christmas I found a stack of Brail Bibles and worried about whomever they belonged to. On the tenth day of Christmas we woke up to the fire being covered in snow and went to the work site once again to help install the walls around a metal, tornado-proof box within the house. On the eleventh day of Christmas we reflected on all the work we had done and all of the amazing people we had met and the experiences we had. On the twelfth day of Christmas we said goodbye to our campsite home, our newly made friendships, our role models, and our inspirations as we headed back to our Annapolis homes with a new outlook on life.

These twelve days of Christmas spent in Alabama during the Christmas break of my senior year in high school opened my eyes to so many new experiences and challenges. It was one of the greatest things I had ever been involved with and during every Christmas season that rolls around, I reflect on it fondly with an immense gratitude for the opportunity and a deep appreciation for the many blessing that life has in store.

Read other articles by Lydia Olsen

December Dreams

Kyle Ott
MSM Class of 2015

After four long years at Mount St. Maryís, Iíve started to fall into the kind of pattern youíd expect from an elderly man rather than a soon-to-be graduate. More often than not, I catch myself saying things like, "I remember before there was a Veritas Program," or, "You used to be able to print your papers at the Niche even after the library closed," and other statements that make me sound like I should occupy a spot on a wrap-around porch. Jokes about my growing kinship with crotchety cartoon grandfathers aside, the one positive thing about all of this reminiscing is I get to think back on the amazing first Christmas I had at the Mount, and the adventures of my freshman year.

It was a time when everything was still new, when I could barely navigate the residence halls, and when I thought I could somehow find a perfect balance between sleep, social life, and meticulous notes. It was a time when I could do anything and be anything. Things like declaring a major seemed far less significant than searching for the perfect sandwich combination at the dining hall. Those who have weathered a few winters here at the Mount should know that it looks kind of like the mythical world of Narnia after a good snowfall. (I would apologize about the puns in the earlier sentence but that would make me a flake. Ok, I promise Iím done now.)

At the time, I was unaware of the magic that followed a good snow. How everyone, regardless of time or location, would just cast up whatever they were doing and begin to enjoy the wintery playground outside. Of all of the things that happened to me then, these are the ones that stick out the most:

1. Tray Sledding

A general sense of adventure gives rise to a beautiful ingenuity here at Mount St. Maryís University, and when students are unable to procure sleds from outside venues, we improvise. One of my fondest memories was seeing the number of people borrowing trays from Patriot Hall to use as impromptu sledding devices, careening down whatever surface could generate the greatest speed. Freshmen like myself took our newfangled sleds to the hillock behind Pangborn Hall, and with all the grace of a beached walrus, managed to get ourselves lodged in snowbanks time after time. We would emerge from these mounds of white fluff, laughing and shaking the powder off as we ran up to try it again. It didnít matter if we were graceful, it just mattered that we did it. It was the same story everywhere on campus. Seminarians were sliding down the hills on Echo Field, and juniors and seniors were traveling to any hilly spot on campus they could find. Tray sledding was more than just a fun way to pass the time; it was a tradition that bound all of us together.

2. The Charlie Brown Tree

In a move that echoed the time honored tradition of the popular Peanuts cartoon, my roommate and I decided to procure the saddest, smallest, most pathetic faux Christmas tree we could find and turn it into our mascot. We succeeded. During the days leading up to Christmas and all of the time that followed it, up we kept this tiny little wire shrub in the corner of our room. The laundry that accumulated around it became a kind of blanket for its base. We had cheap glass bulbs and tiny plastic ornaments that weighed down the treeís branches. Girls would walk into the room and coo, "Itís so cute!" Our guy friends would scoff at it and remark, "Nice tree, bros." And it was. It was our tree; pathetic as it was, we had decorated it, cared for it, and loved it. The tree didnít need to be anything amazing for us to love it. It was a symbol of our newfound freedoms, sagging branches and all.

3. Getting Cared For By Others

Remember how I mentioned the walrus-like grace of my friends earlier? After my friends and I had officially soaked ourselves to the bone, we ran inside our hall shouting about how our toes were falling off and hooting about the great time we just had. We decided it would be wise to stop by the girlsí floor of our hall, and the ladies in their infinite mercy decided to take us in. Within minutes they had produced a laptop with movies on it, cups of hot cocoa, and several home-knitted quilts. My friends and I were soon bundled up in a wigwam of blankets, curled up on the linoleum floor while watching Boondock Saints on someoneís battered computer. It was the most epically spontaneous moment of kindness I had seen. Plus, you know, there was free hot cocoa, so that was nice.

While the list sums up three simple things that I remember, I think the overarching spirit of that list is whatís most important. What always strikes me is how all of those moments that led up to my first Christmas were indicative not just of the holiday, but also of the freedoms inherent in college. More than my family, more than my friends, I was the one who was left to make my own meaning out of the holiday season. That alone made it one of the best times of my life. The joy that I spread and the moments that I shared with others were born of my own life and whims. It can and should be the same for you. Enjoy the fact that the meaning of the season has as much to do with you as it does with anything else. It falls to you to bring about joy, laughter, and peace this holiday season, and thatís a great responsibility. Iím Kyle Ott. Wonít you sit and read for a while?

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