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Merry Christmas!

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My journey in search of The Nativity takes me to Utica, New York, where the Rev. John E. Mikalajunas, Pastor of the Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, shares his thoughts on the true meaning of Christmas…

Lithuanian Christmas — straw, in honor of the Baby Jesus, is spread on the table under the white cloth, a fir tree is decorated, and the family shares a moment of thanks. (Painting courtesy Rev. John E. Mikalajunas, Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, Utica, New York.)
Rev. John E. Mikalajunas at the Holy Trinity Rectory with a Polish icon of the Virgin Mary and a porcelain nativity scene.
It's raining and the sky is gray when I knock on the door of the Rectory of the Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, in Utica, New York.

I have been in search of The Nativity for almost a month, knocking on rectory, church, cathedral, and basilica doors for almost a month, traveling through Upstate New York, and then in an arc, following the south shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, to end up at the shores of Lake Huron, in Sarnia, home of friends Nick and Dagmar Vrkljan. (See Vojtěch Kubašta Stained Glass Christmas Card).

All along the way, I was touched by the kindness of many people—priests, monsignors, nuns, monks, deacons, organists, church secretaries, office volunteers, parochial school teachers, sacristans and custodians—who made my search of The Nativity unforgettable.

They didn't just open church doors and eagerly share their love for their beloved church and its sacred art: they unlocked choir lofts for a panoramic view; stayed late so I could take one more shot; had me sit in altar choir stalls so I could capture beautiful Gregorian chart for my videos; allowed me to climb a stage in order to take a better shot while all around electricians and carpenters were making preparations for a concert. They even held — high above their head — utility bulbs on the outside of a stained glass window whose natural light was being obscured by the addition of a church hall!

Tharsella Pins, 101 years young, in her elegant Dubuque home. Was a walker ever put to better use?
My remarkable journey began with an extended stop in historic Dubque, Iowa, home of Tharsella Pins. (See, Tharsella Pins says a tearful goodbye to St. Mary's in Dubuque, Iowa.)

I was so touched after talking to her on the phone, I had to meet her. So what's a detour off I-80 along the scenic Mississippi?

Attended by her nephew Daniel, Tharsella — "Tee" to her friends — is full of life and humor. And smiles, as she sits in an antique settee for her portrait. "There were once 500 students at our school," she says, reminiscing about her beloved, now closed, St. Mary's.

Tee turns around and points out of the window. "Look," she says. "There's Saint Mary's." Tee's home sits high on a bluff, affording a panoramic view of Dubuque, and St. Mary's, whose towers above the city.

"Do you know that St. Mary's has the most beautiful bells?" Tee asks. "But, you know, in later years, people haven't liked church bells, because they disturb their sleep. Have you been inside St. Mary's?"

I had. The Catholic Archdiocese of Dubuque kindly opened St. Mary's for me, and for over four hours I was surrounded by the beauty of St. Mary's stained glass — I look forward to sharing with you St. Mary's Nativity Window — frescoes, and columns with fan-shaped capitals decorated with pairs of angels.

A nativity scene angel at St. Mary's, Dubuque, holds a banner — and seems to be holding back tears.
I am alone in the church, save for the eerie presence in the pews of St. Mary's Nativity scene. Am I alone in thinking that the angel holding aloft a "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" banner seems to be also holding back tears?

But now Dubuque seems so far away as I stand away from the rain under the porch of the Rectory of the Holy Trinity, knocking on the door.

Father John E. Mikalajunas, Pastor of the Holy Trinity, who greets me warmly in his Rectory office where he is surrounded by his Lithuanian and Polish heritage: a painting of a Lithuanian family Christmas hangs on the wall, and at the other end of the room another canvas depicts a religious procession with Polish women in colorful folk costumes holding white ribbons and Holy Images of Christ and the Virgin Mary.

To Father Mikalajunas' left, there's a chair with a carved Byzantine double eagle. "I got that in Greece," he says, anticipating my question. "In Athens, on the way to a pilgrimage to the island of Patmos."

Father Mikalajunas has also prayed at Lourdes, France, at the Shrine of the Virgin of Czestochowa Poland, Fatima, Spain, and, in 1997, concelebrated Mass with John Paul II in the Pope's private chapel. In a small frame there's a photo of him and the late pontiff.

Soon, talk turns to The Nativity.

"It's very peaceful in our church," Father Mikalajunas says, "and many times I meditate the thoughts, the words, that went through Mary and Joseph as they held the Child. It's a joy for the entire world when you look at the Nativity. The Lord didn't come to a hotel. His bed was the feed bowl of the animals, the manger. The angels with the shepherds were first to come, there was no one else aware of the birth of this wonderful Redeemer. Later the Magi would come, but the first visitors are the shepherds, the humble poor shepherds.

"So Christ comes in great humility, and He enters the world in extreme poverty. As we look at the beauty of our Lord, and of the Mother of God, and of St. Joseph, we see, in the greatest humility, our hope of salvation.

"Hope, and joy, and happiness is not in materialism, right? But in truth. And Christ is truth. In our country we so secularized Christmas that now it's, 'the Holidays.' I don't celebrate "the Holidays.' I celebrate the birth of Christ. There's only one Holy Day, The Nativity of Christ. Commercialism—presents—are a nice things, but it's not the essence: the essence is Christ."

"We miss what true love is. We see the epitome of love on that window; we see that God is love."

Father Mikalajunas looks up: "Христос родился! Славим Его! It's Slavic," he says. "Christ is born! Glorfy Him!"

Then Father Mikalajunas returns to the rectory and leaves me alone to photograph in the Holy Trinity. (I hope to bring you the glorious Holy Trinity Nativity stained glass window that adorns a whole transept wall in the near future.)

I doubt if this platter of Greek cookies — including the powdered sugar-sprinkled kourambiethes — will make it to Benjamin's.
But I have brought you is the long-promised Christmas Lantern (a Premium Download), and Christmas Tetrahedron (a Free Download) that you'll find in the Downloads page of

I have also brought you, without much fanfare, the Paper Model Kiosk, Crèchemania's virtual emporium. I have been dreaming of offering you vintage Premium Downloads of nativities and other ephemera from the Crèchemania Collection, and that is now possible in the Paper Model Kiosk.

And now that I have joined Facebook, will E. B. White's saying that, "Everything in life is somewhere else and you get there in a car," no longer be true?

Of course not!

I love meeting old friends and making new ones in the Elysian Fields of Facebook — so many disembodied, familiar voices, how can I not make a connection with the netherworld of the ancient Greeks? — but I also look forward to getting into the Mini Cooper and heading West: I am already planning a trip to Seattle, with stops at every steeple I see in the way, and then visiting Victoria and Vancouver, before I return to the Midwest along the scenic route across the Canadian Rockies.

Just now, Mini is covered with over seven inches of snow, and, in my friend Elaine's words, looks like a Greek kourambie cookie that's sprinkled with powdered sugar. But I must blow all the powder off Mini, and head to the suburbs and my godson Benjamin's for Christmas dinner. I'll be taking along a tray of courambiethes, and I hope we'll make it to Benjamin's before they're all gone.

With Warmest Wishes for Christmas,

— Alexis

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Alexis' Blog