One of my favorite Christmas traditions is the exchanging of Christmas cards. There’s a joy-filled wonder in checking the mailbox and seeing a colored card-sized envelope. No matter who it’s from, we love receiving personal notes of affection, awkward family photos, and assurances of prayers and love in the coming New Year. Many families have the practice of displaying these greetings on the fireplace mantel, or on a designated table in the living room. In our monastery, we collect the Christmas cards in a basket in our recreation room. When we have recreation, we pass around the basket, read the greetings, and rank our favorite cards by their front image. On the other side of this tradition, who among us doesn’t painstakingly choose the cards that they will send? I know many families who take a Christmas photo during the summer vacation every year for their custom-printed cards. One of the friars in my community takes the Metro down to the National Gallery after Christmas every year to buy discounted cards from the museum gift shop.

Christmas greetings have a long tradition in Carmel. The letters of our saints are filled with Christmas greetings to their family, friends, benefactors, or Carmelite sisters and brothers. Take a look at the index of these collections of letters, and you’ll find multitudes of listings under the heading for Christmas. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to get into the Christmas spirit than by reading the Christmas greetings of the saints.

One of my favorite letters of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus was a Christmas greeting she wrote in 1896 for Sister Marie of the Trinity, who was a novice when St. Thérèse held the position of novice mistress. At the time, Sister Marie writes that she, “being a little childish, was using a very strange method in the practice of virtue: that of pleasing the Child Jesus by playing all kinds of spiritual games with Him.” It is not entirely clear what Sister Marie meant, but it seems that she would figuratively imagine playing ninepin bowling with the Child Jesus in prayer! She explains that she “pictured these ninepins in all sizes and colors in order to personify the souls I wanted to reach out to in my prayers.” Before Christmas that year, the novices were decorating a Christmas tree from a box of decorations they had received for the missions. Sister Marie writes: “And there happened to be at the bottom of the surprise package an object that was very rare in Carmel: a top. My companions said: ‘How ugly! What good is it?’ I knew how to use it, and I picked up the top, saying: ‘It is very enjoyable, this can spin all day long without stopping as long as you keep whipping it!’ Then I began giving them a demonstration which surprised them. Sister Thérèse was watching me without saying anything.”

A few days later, on Christmas Eve, the saintly novice mistress slipped this letter into Sister Marie’s cell:

Dear little Spouse,

Oh! how pleased I am with you…. All year you have amused me very much by playing ninepins. I was so pleased that the angelic court was surprised and charmed; more than one little cherub asked me why I had not made him a child… more than one asked me if the melody of his harp was not more pleasing to me than your joyful laugh when you knocked down a pin with the bowl of your love. I answered my little cherubs that they were not to be sorry for not having been children since one day they would be able to play with you in the meadows of heaven; I told them, certainly, your smile was more sweet to me than their melodies because you could not play and smile except by suffering, by forgetting yourself.

Beloved little spouse, I have something to ask you, will you refuse me?… Oh, no! you love me too much for that. Well, I shall admit I would like to change the game; the ninepins amuse me, but I would now like to spin the top, and if you wish you will be my top. I am giving you one as a model. You see it is not beautiful, whoever does not know how to use it will kick it away with his foot. But a child will leap with joy when seeing it and will say: “Ah! how amusing, this can spin all day long without stopping.”

I, little Jesus, love you even though you are without any charms, and I am asking you always to spin in order to amuse me…. But strokes of the whip are necessary to make the top spin…. Well! let the Sisters render you this service and be thankful to them who will be the most assiduous in not letting you relent in your spinning. When I have been well entertained by you, I will take you up above and we shall play without any suffering….

Your little Brother Jesus [1]

This thoughtful letter on the occasion of Christmas brought so much delight to Sister Marie of the Trinity that she cherished the message for years to come. She writes that her novice mistress, St. Thérèse, “followed the inclination of my soul in leading me to Jesus. She told me she did not want to force others to follow her way because God guides us in different ways and each should walk according to the divine will.” St. Thérèse appreciated the unusual little way that Sister Marie approached the Child Jesus imaginatively in prayer, and encouraged Sister Marie by providing sound teaching on how forgetting ourselves and sharing our sufferings with Jesus bring him joy. As we approach the mystery of Christmas, may our small acts of generosity to our friends and family be ordered toward bringing joy to the Child Jesus!

[1]  John Clarke, O.C.D., trans., Letters of St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Volume II (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1988), Letter 212.