“Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.” (attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola)

As Christmas approaches my mind most is forced on the present, shopping lists and holiday parties, arrival schedules for family from out of town. There is the bustle on the street and the season seeps in from every direction, from news programs, sports pregame shows, to the windows of local shops. But despite (or maybe because of) the sensory overload, I find myself drifting into the past, the distant past.

Among my earliest memories of Christmas are services at what was then the West 14th Avenue Baptist Church, a little wooden building that certainly would have paled in comparison to the great cathedrals and historic churches I would see later in life. But it was my church, on the outer edges of my neighborhood, the poverty-permeated “Heights” section of Houston.

My earliest memories are spotty, clouded by the passage of time in the museum of my mind. Yet there are flashes of vividness that take on new life every Christmas —even now, as age is making some of life’s colors fade.

Mostly what I remember are the apples. Every child got a brown sack containing an apple and what amounted to a handful of pecans (homegrown; the Heights in the early 1930s was dotted with many pecan trees.) The apple, the pecans….and the hymns.

“Silent Night”: which all of her life, until her death, my mother could not sing without tears.

“Away in the Manger”; which could conjure up visual images even for me at age..what? Three, maybe four.

“Joy to the World”, the closer to services, sung with such gusto that the thin windowpanes rattled and even the deacons nodding off on the back benches were awakened and belatedly joined in the singing.

Even now those hymns are so rooted in those early memories that I can be in Times Square and be transported back through time and space.

The world has turned, and in so many ways moved on from those days. Christmas, generally speaking, has become more of a mixed secular and religious holiday–for better or for worse, whatever one wants to make of that.

One tries to keep up with the times and changes in tradition and culture; one tries to be “modern”.

But, for me, anyway, as Christmas approaches, out of the fog of old memories, come thoughts of the apple, the pecans, and my mother’s face as she sang “Silent Night.”