Grandma’s dresses: A Christmas reflection

During my conversion to the Catholic faith, I found myself in a bit of a conundrum figuring out what to wear to Mass for the first time. I ended up buying the book “Dressing with Dignity” (TAN, $16.95) by Colleen Hammond after the cover caught my eye. Most of the author’s advice was sensible, and I felt especially endeared by her suggestion to dress like the Blessed Virgin Mary. And she meant this literally: When pictured, Our Lady is completely covered in loosely draped and layered fabrics made of material that isn’t too thin or sheer. She wears simple, pretty colors, without bold or busy patterns. Yes, Mary is perfectly modest, while being the most beautiful woman in the world.

I bought one new outfit to try: a long skirt in mauve and a loose linen blouse in rose. Both items were handmade by a Catholic dressmaker I’d discovered on Instagram and went well together. Not only was I pleased with how feminine I looked and how comfortable I felt in the clothes, but I was also reminded of the way my grandma, a part-time dressmaker, made some of my clothing growing up.

For many years, it was a family tradition: In summertime, Grandma made cotton sundresses for my younger sister and I, while in wintertime, she knitted Norwegian ski sweaters and sewed our high-necked, flannel nightgowns to vintage patterns. Most memorably, she made for us some Christmas dresses (and other dresses “for church”), designing them herself after consulting us about how we wanted them to look. I remember the last one she made for me, before her arthritis became too limiting. I was 15, and my grandma came to our house for Christmas that year. When she arrived, I was wearing the dress she’d made two years before. My mom had let down the hem of the skirt, but it was still too short. Thankfully, Grandma had brought a new dress for me, as a surprise, so I changed immediately.

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Many years later, as I dressed for my first Mass, it occurred to me that while I was going through an internal, spiritual transformation, my appearance was also changing, sort of like a reverse makeover. I began praying to St. Mary Magdalene, whose outward appearance also had changed after her conversion. I even decided to grow out my shoulder length hair down to my waist, partly as a tribute to the saint’s own hair that she used to wipe the precious feet of Our Lord.

St. Mary Magdalene isn’t the only woman in the Bible who goes through a makeover. Esther, too, was kept in the temple “harem” undergoing beauty treatments for one year before meeting the king (cf. Est 2:12). She takes the opportunity and uses it as a way to help free her people, instead of giving into vanity. We can see in her story that beauty is God-given and should be used only for holy purposes.

Women innately feel the importance of putting care and thoughtful effort into our appearances, and this gift is far-reaching. It accompanies our innate desire to ensure our children are well clothed and warm enough. Mary, too, demonstrates this attribute. At the Nativity, Mary wrapped Jesus in swaddling clothes, so naturally. What a gift to be dressed by the Blessed Mother, even in the simplest of coverings.

What a blessing, too, to be wrapped in her mantle, in her embrace, in the warmth of her love. St. John Eudes says, “the admirable Heart of Mary is an empyrean heaven, that is, a heaven all fire and flames, ever burning with the fire and flames of celestial love, holier and more ardent than the love of the seraphim and of the greatest saints who dwell in heaven.” Imagine being wrapped in such a love as this, that can reach us here on earth through grace!

While it was a gift to be wrapped in the clothing made by my grandmother, how much greater it is to be wrapped in the arms of the Blessed Virgin. By dressing with Our Lady in mind, we honor her motherhood to us and, in turn, reverence her son.

On that Christmas Eve long ago when I was 15, my family sat by the fire after dinner. The red brocade of my new dress had a sheen that caught the firelight and glimmered. I felt such warmth in my heart and in the air that night, like a premonition of what I would feel at my first Catholic Mass years later. So, as we dress up for Christmas Mass and dinner this year, let’s focus on the warmth we feel, the warmth that God provides for us. And let’s keep in mind our loving mother, who is always eager to wrap us in her loving care.

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