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Thursday, December 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 40.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Merry Christmas, baby
A family's first holiday has a stormy start

Our first baby had a temperament that matched the weather on his first Christmas. Stormy. Tucker required forceps for his entry into the world and, for a period of time thereafter, for his entry into everything else. Then again, on that Christmas morning 20 years ago, no one wanted to come out. Especially people with wee ones. We decided earlier in the week to scrap our holiday travel.

We called Louisville and Milwaukee. Merry Christmas. Can't come. We love you, too. Tucker cried hard Christmas morning. Our apartment, glowing in the lights of our first family Christmas tree, felt warm but wrong. We bundled up and I commenced to dig the car out.

St. Paul's Church seats 400 people. It sits across the mall from UW Memorial Library, a church-and-state stare-down. We were married there. Inside, worshipers in the cloud-level north and south balconies sit in concrete cradles perched high above the proceedings. The building is to churchgoers what Assembly Hall in Bloomington is to basketball fans.

Our drive downtown was slow, skiddy and scream-filled. Tucker cried all the way, pitching around in his car seat as though he was sitting on a straight pin. It was at moments like this that I understood why my father chain-smoked.

To stay sane on the way downtown, Peggy and I talked about who the priest might be for Christmas morning. During our years at St. Paul's there were two Father Steves. I can't remember now if our favorite was on the scene yet that Christmas. That Steve was a kind-hearted Fordham grad who sounded like Elmer Fudd. "Through him, with him, and em-uh em-uh, em-uh, in him. In the em-uh, em-uh, unity of the Holy Spirit."

They don't call it Mass for nothing. The back parking lot was packed with cars - and plowed, as if by angels. Our usual sitting spot at St. Paul's was midway, middle, south balcony. That was our place in college and so it was thereafter despite the 70 pounds of baby gear we now unloaded from the car and muled up the steep, carpeted stairs.

We summited the balcony with five minutes to spare. The sanctuary was decked out in curls of ribbons, bright red bows and evergreen boughs.

Way down on the floor, between the south pulpit and the enormous decorated Christmas tree, was a large corrugated metal tub filled with water, the size of a hot tub, which sounds unattractive but wasn't at all. The shimmering, clear water added to the sparkling décor. The tub's presence meant a baby would be baptized on this Christmas Day.

New parents are intensely occupied with their little one, especially their first little one. We focused on the screaming contents of our portable car seat as we battled down the pew through the morass of people, coats and bulky boots. It was a Christmas miracle that we didn't tumble off the balcony.

But the Christmas miracles were just beginning. After unswaddling baby Tucker, and ourselves, our little boy grew quiet. The pianist sounded the first chords of a beautiful hymn. The service began.

But wait. Way down there on the floor. That wasn't Father Steve holding the large Bible high over his head. It wasn't even the other Father Steve. This was a little guy. Who was that guy?

The music resolved in perfect timing with the priest's arrival to the pulpit. A dot of warm silence washed over the crowd of worshipers seated shoulder-to-sweatered-shoulder. The mystery priest spoke.

Churches, no matter how new or old, aren't known for quality P.A. systems. We couldn't understand a word the guy was saying. We shifted in our seats, handed Tucker over from one lap to the other. I looked to the people on my right. A young Asian couple listened intently. Their toddler hummed to herself and drew on the bulletin with the stubby church pencil.

Peggy and I realized what our audio trouble was at the very same time. We looked at each other, mouths open. We couldn't understand the priest because we'd never heard a Mass given in Korean. We looked around at the faces of our fellow worshipers. Holy Mother of God. We were misfit toys among a church filled with Koreans, who now bowed their heads to pray. They knew what to do that because of what the priest said.

There is what is known as church laughter. That giddy, unstoppable, endorphin-releasing giggle that persists like a tickling cough. Our bodies vibrated with it. If someone from the opposite balcony saw us, it would look like we were enduring our own private earthquake. An Anglo priest assisted in the service, but when English popped up, we were too busy suppressing laughter to know which was which.

Stranded from family rituals on Christmas, we had left home in search of the familiar. And even though we landed with one foot on a different continent, still, we found it.

All the prayers in Korean were the same prayers; the pauses were all in the same places. The music was the same. Even the wicker basket for the offering found its way down the row at the same time. Thirty-three minutes in.

By the time the baptism began, we had totally gotten the hang of things. In the warm hush of Christmas morning, the Korean baby cooed. The same as Tucker.

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