A few weeks ago, after my mother had our old home movies digitized, I came face to face once more with seven year-old me, during my most memorable Christmas ever. The first scene shows my cousins, siblings, and me, laughing and cutting up with our beloved and beaming grandmother in the living room of her home in Laredo, on Christmas Eve, 1968. Then we’re shown in our pajamas, having just awakened early on Christmas morning, frantically opening gifts from Santa.
But what happened between these two scenes is even more memorable. That Christmas Eve, all of us – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, Mom and Dad – gathered around my grandparents’ black & white TV, because that night, for the first time ever, men were traveling to another celestial body, and the Apollo 8 astronauts were marking their entry into orbit around the Moon with a live broadcast to Earth.
I remember the hush in the room when the astronauts’ camera panned up from the surface of the Moon to show a shimmering disc. It was our entire world, in a God’s-eye view, being shown to its inhabitants, live. Except for those three men at the moon, every person who ever lived was in that picture. Later, after technical descriptions of what they were seeing and doing, it was time for the astronauts to end their broadcast, but not before they announced that they had a message, “For all the people back on Earth.”
After a pause of many seconds, as we gazed at that small grainy image of Earth, floating in space, we heard these words: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth…”
Over the next several minutes the astronauts proceeded, in turn, to read the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis. Upon hearing this, historians write that many of the buttoned-down engineers and flight controllers in Mission Control, suddenly had tears in their eyes. Most of the adults in that Laredo living room did too. But I was confused. Why were they crying? This was awesome!
We kids were confused again on Christmas morning, when we realized that our grandparents weren’t around, and that some of our aunts and uncles were missing too. It seems that after the kids were finally asleep, our Grandmother had suffered a seizure and been rushed to the hospital. Most of the adults had joined her there. It turned out to be the first sign of the brain cancer that would take her life a couple of years later and would also mark the start of the first time that we kids would ever genuinely worry about someone we loved or be forced to consider mortality.
I think we were lucky, at our young ages, to begin understanding that Christmastime contains stories more profound than Santa’s ability to get all those toys into his sleigh; and I still trace my awe and wonder at this season back to that 1968 Christmas in Laredo.