Over the holiday period The Dabbler will be running a series of posts in which Dabblers and guests ponder “What Christmas means to me”. For Christmas Eve, we have carols, youthful innocence and Midnight Mass…
Nige – ‘On all fours before the unknown’
Christmas is the time of year that most nearly reduces me to a helples blubbering wreck, on all fours (in John Ashbery’s resonant phrase) before the lamentable spectacle of the unknown. It’s the carols that do it, with their uniquely potent hit of mingled narrative, music, theology, childhood memories, joy and sadness. For me, the most unbearable (as in unbearable beauty) is In The Bleak Midwinter played, to the standard melody, by a Salvation Army band on a shopping street, with that wonderful way they have of playing a verse then singing it – but by the time they’re singing the first verse I’ll be running for cover – it’s too much, it undoes me every time.
As for Midnight Mass, getting through that without altogether dissolving is harder with every passing year. The time will surely come when a great racked, sobbing wail goes up, every head in the place turns and I stumble from the scene, face covered, tears spurting from between my fingers. Even such a sturdily triumphant anthem as Hark The Herald Angels can get you (me) with a sneaky sucker punch – ‘risen with healing in his wings’… Is it just me?
Well, that, I suppose, is what going to church at Christmas is all about – rejoicing through the tears (shed or undshed), feeeling terrible and wonderful, vowing to be a better person and knowing the chances are slim… And then home to the rest of Christmas.
Monix (of Random Distractions) – Unconditional Joy
Christmas in my early childhood was a time of unalloyed joy. For weeks beforehand, my sister and I would peer into cupboards and other likely places for evidence that all would be as exciting as the previous year. In the kitchen, the growing store of dried fruit and sugar, rationed treasures, held the promise of plum pudding and Christmas cake to come. We would creep around the house, searching for hidden toys and books under our parents’ bed and the baby’s cot, in wardrobes and chests of drawers. We kept our eyes firmly shut because, although we wanted to be reassured that there would be presents, we didn’t want to spoil the magical surprise of Christmas morning. We lived in a constant state of hopeful expectation tinged with the fear of being caught or, worse, finding nothing there.
Christmas Eve was the busiest day of the year for my mother. She spent the morning making jellies and trifles and dozens of fairy cakes for Boxing Day, when our many aunts, uncles and cousins would visit. After lunch, she made the mince pies and baked the clove-studded ham, filling the house with the wonderful scents of Christmas. My sister and I were kept out of mischief with crepe paper and scissors, making streamers and party hats. Then, at last, it was time for us to go upstairs and hang our stockings at the foot of the bed.
Inevitably, we woke very early on Christmas morning with cries of, “Has he been yet?” My sister, who was three years older and therefore taller than me, could stretch her leg down to the foot of her bed to feel the intriguing shapes in the filled stocking. Father Christmas had been! Then our own father would appear in the doorway, telling us to go back to sleep as it was only four o’clock and we couldn’t have the light on until seven. We were quite content to snuggle back under the blankets, secure in the knowledge that our stockings were full of treats.
These were the years of austerity, the late 1940s and early 50s. We were not well off and certainly not extravagant, there were all kinds of shortages and many things were still rationed but Christmas was always special. Pure joy! Our stockings always contained a handful of nuts, a red apple, a tangerine and an odd sort of ball made of tissue paper and foil which the cat would pounce on and split, scattering fine sawdust all over the rug; then there would be small toys: a yo-yo, top and whip or skipping rope, a box of coloured pencils or paints, a ‘magic’ painting book, some bubbles and perhaps a few handkerchiefs or some mittens. Waiting for us downstairs were jigsaw puzzles and books and one special present for each of us, perhaps a doll or doll’s house or farm. I remember one year when I got a little cooker that really worked and I spent hours making little pancakes for everyone. Oh the joy of that era before Health and Safety regulations!
Then, the year that I was eight, it all changed. The joy was taken out of Christmas by Vera Lynn. I heard her on the radio, singing The little boy that Santa Claus forgot. It broke my heart. It filled me with sorrow and guilt. I didn’t want to go searching for presents because of that poor boy who would get none. I wanted to pack up the mince pies and cake and go to look for him. More than fifty years on, I still hear that wretched song in my head at this time of year and, while I realised long ago that it is nothing more than mawkish drivel, I have never been able to recapture that innocent feeling of Christmas joy.
Bob Geldof and Midge Ure surely must have heard it when they were children and decided to inflict the same guilt-laden misery on a new generation with Do they know it’s Christmas? Clever fundraisers know that people who are well-fed and entertained give far more generously than those who merely respond to emotional blackmail. So, let’s banish all the depressing Christmas songs and replace them with the unconditionally joyful meaning of Christmas…
Patrick Kurp (of Anecdotal Evidence) – Birth of a holiday tradition
This is a story about the birth of a holiday tradition. Our mother was no housekeeper. Cleaning meant rearranging disorder, no more. Magazines, new and old clothes, knickknacks, dead and dying plants, all tufted with dust and dog fur, cluttered room after room. The kitchen was a kitchen midden ahead of its time. Our mother’s indifference to tidiness was abetted by our father’s attachment to every form of excess except a sense of proportion. One of anything was never enough.
Christmas decorations filled numerous boxes. In particular I remember a white plastic church anchored to a plot of plastic snow. Turn the crank behind the altar and the church rendered a creaky “Silent Night.” The trees my father selected were spherical, width matching height. By the time decorating was complete, little greenery showed. We felt sorry for our Christmas trees, freighted with garlands, ornaments, lights and handfuls of tinsel. Our trees looked burdened and weary.
Around my twelfth Christmas my brother and I decided to make our own contribution to the tree. From the midden we took a bag of hot dog buns, cylinders of pulpy white bread compressible to the size of a jelly bean, and arranged them on the tree, tucking them among the Santas and reindeer. No one, neither parents nor guests, ever noticed, and this was disappointing at first, but we concluded our silent act of sabotage was truer and funnier for going unrecognized. We subverted every subsequent Christmas tree, with no one the wiser. I’ve perpetuated the tradition with my sons, for whom Yuletide is incomplete without mistletoe and stockings, and baked goods on the tree. Tradition is so important for children.
Martpol (of Woolgatherer) – ‘One of our last communal joys’
As a fairly recent ex-Christian, I like to think I’ve avoided the worst pitfalls of that “aggressive” secularism we keep hearing about. I’ve managed to keep some semblance of ethical judgement, I haven’t fallen victim to depression or alcoholism, and I’ve singularly failed to go about kicking street preachers’ heads in.
Oh yes, I’m doing this “no God” thing fairly well. But about this time in December, with the days growing ever shorter and the shopping list longer, I do miss one thing about the Christmases of my faithful youth: the carols.
It isn’t one in particular – although of course, some are much better than others. We can all agree that the mid-range swagger of O Come All Ye Faithful is far preferable to the mawkish Victorian nonsense of Away in a Manger. Similarly, the bouncy descending chorus of Ding Dong Merrily on High (in the school choir, we were told to start every syllable with an “h”) will always knock the socks off I Saw Three Ships.
No, however ill-chosen the set-list, there is something about the carol service that does you good. If you worry about the frenzy of greed and excess in which we all participate, there is no better way to reclaim Christmas – its spirit of communities coming together, of celebrating the things that are good about the human spirit – than to gather in an echoey, very probably cold church and warm it collectively, with songs that return once a year like old friends.
Even the downbeat carols – whether musically, such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman, or lyrically, as in the soul-pounding In The Bleak Midwinter – are there to be cherished. Who cares if you can’t sing? The more upmarket places recruit the services of proper choristers, who drown you out with the baritones’ ruddy-cheeked force and the sopranos’ rafter-lifting harmonies. But anyone can join in with a carol, and no-one cares if the place doesn’t sound like Westminster Cathedral. Carols are one of our last live, in-the-flesh communal joys, uniting friend and neighbour, parent and child.
So, there’s nothing for it. If I don’t pop on my winter coat this Christmas Eve, and bustle down to the local consecrated fridge, shuffling in with the crowd to avoid the priest’s searching eye, I will never get my festive fix.
Hannah Stoneham (of the Book Blog) – ‘the gin and tonic midnight mass brigade’
I must put my hand up now and admit that I am very much a member of the gin and tonic midnight mass brigade. I am almost completely heathen and don’t usually darken the church door except for weddings (which I love), funerals (which I mind less than you might think, but I am slightly Irish) and midnight mass (which I look forward to almost the whole year).
It started when I was at university, home for the Christmas vac, and like all students, very slightly bored (sorry Mums and Dads out there, but it is a truth universally acknowledged). I thought that steaming out of the house at half past eleven at night might be funny and since I am blessed with the most adventurous and uncomplaining of Mummies, that is what we begun to do. Every year. Since that time, we have huddled together on chilly icy walks, flashed pocket torches over puddles and giggled all the way to the church door. Now I have a husband who is also a participant and sometimes we take the neighbours as well. I am getting excited just thinking about it.
Frank Wilson (of Books Inq) – Attending the Shepherd’s Mass
When I think back to my childhood in search of Christmas memories I am somewhat surprised that so few of the conventional images come to mind — Santa, gifts, ornament-laden trees, lights galore.
The one exception is a house near where I grew up that every Christmas season was outlined entirely in blue lights, which gave off a ghostly — in its olden sense of “spiritual” — glow that seemed perfectly suited to the cold, especially if there was snow. Blue lights still appeal to me more than any others. It’s probably why I like Botticelli’s Mystical Nativity, with its blue sky matching Mary’s blue mantle.
Which brings me to what I most remember about Christmas when I was growing up: Attending the dawn Mass — sometimes called the Shepherd’s Mass — with my mother and my older brother. This was always the most sparsely attended Mass.
Those who came were not dressed in holiday finery. Most were on their way to jobs that had to be done, Christmas notwithstanding. They were there to fulfill their religious obligation.
When I became old enough to think about such things I realized that there was something about that Mass that made it nearer in spirit to the event in Bethlehem that Christmas commemorates. Perhaps that is why, for me — and this was true even when I was growing up — Christmas has always been, first and foremost, a religious feast. To this day it is the crèche — invented, we are told, by my patron saint, Francis of Assisi — that means more to me than the tree or the lights or the gaudily wrapped packages. It does seem, strictly speaking, remarkable that so many continue to remember a birth that took place more that 2,000 years ago in utterly humble circumstances. The well-born of that day would certainly be amazed at such an odd turn of events — and might well make more of it that we do today.
I will not, of course, be attending a dawn Mass this year. I actually don’t know of any, and if there were one to attend, it would probably be an English-language monstrosity. No, I shall be attending a sung Tridentine Mass in Latin, marveling at the cultural bounty that came of that long-ago nativity.