In my memory, the streets, the sidewalks, the trees & bushes, the bridges & pathways were blanketed in powdery snow. I remember no ice, though it was cold. Very cold. The sky was never blue but rather an icy gray. It had been snowing for days.
The small city – Saltzburg – in which I found myself that Christmas Eve was both foreign & familiar. People hustling about doing last minute Christmas shopping, yet without the glare of consumerism. Saltzburg, in the gently falling snow & cold felt too old-European for such garishness. Yes – so idyllic in my memory.
That evening – Christmas Eve – I was bound & determined to go to church. I simply always had. Not because of any particular Christian longing but out of a culturally bread sense of spirituality on this eve. But this was Saltzburg so going to church meant taking my Protestant self to Catholic mass. In a massive, echoing cathedral that was as inviting with its Christmas greenery & candles as it was strange with its Latin accompanied Catholic rituals. I stood in the back in a mass of people, most of whom were quiet, only occasionally respectfully whispering. They too might as well have been speaking Latin for all I understood. I stood gazing in wonder at the looming cathedral ceiling over my head – Catholic art work on display – saints watching, gazing back at me – the Protestant intruder in their midst? They were welcoming & comforting – oddly enough. An unseen choir sang from the rafters, its eloquence magnificently filling up every inch of space in the cavernous cathedral. A priest spoke somewhere way down in front. Through the crowd – I never saw him. Just heard his rhythmic Latin chanting.
It was not the simple, spiritual Christmas Eve of my youth. No. But it was moving in its own unique way. I recognized some of the music played & sung - a genuine connection from Catholicism to Protestantism, from Austrians to the American in their midst.
I stayed an hour. Then I left. The mass was still going on. Leaving the crowd behind indoors & walked outdoors into the quiet winter wonderland of snowy Saltzburg. Alone I walked, taking my time, listening to my feet crunch in the snow, as I crossed a bridge headed back to the hostel where I was spending the night. My solitary walk home that Christmas Eve I remember well. One of the best Christmas Eve’s I have ever spent.