Christmas past

The end of Christmas. In the continuity of life we come across occasions which mark more radical changes. This will be the first year in six decades when my wife and I do not celebrate the family Christmas in our own home. It had been a set ritual lasting from Christmas Eve to when we all retired, exhausted, at the end of Christmas Day. This year, both days will be celebrated at our children’s homes. We are relieved because we escape the work, and saddened because it is, at least, the waiting room for our final exit. We will become anecdotes.

So I muse on Christmases past. I hold a memory from the 1930s of a figure in red and white costume working his way from room to room in the middle of the night. This was the editor of the Catholic Herald, no less – playing out our family conspiracy, to act as if Father Christmas existed. Does his successor do the same? But clearer in my memory is my Christmas of shame and my Christmas of fear.

The Christmas of shame was in the 1940s. Edenbridge, in Kent, had then no Catholic church, so our congregation met in Fr O’Kane’s front room. O’Kane was somewhat different from the Jesuits I knew at school. Fiery, witty, even occasionally uncouth, he was a man of God, as his congregation recognised. For Midnight Mass, my father organised the liturgy. He and I served on the altar.

That evening the place was full and there was a long queue of parishioners waiting for Confession. For younger readers, I must explain that in those days Catholics actually used the confessional as a matter of course. O’Kane moved swiftly. Going by the time intervals, the penitent got little further than “Forgive me, father, for I have sinned” before he found himself ushered out with absolution and three Hail Marys. One could no doubt have confessed to assassinating the Pope – with just a decade of the rosary for one’s pains.

But the queue was growing, so O’Kane left the confessional and commanded the penitents: “On yer knees.” His ego vos absolvo covered them all. Back in the sacristy, he muttered to my father: “An emergency, don’t tell the bishop.” There was no danger, the Catholic Herald, as an independent newspaper, did not always see eye to eye with the bishops.

We had a cut-down sung Mass, and I was given the privileged post of being thurifer. Manoeuvring between the rickety altar and the pressing congregation was tricky, but all went well until the high point of my duties: thurifying the people. The charcoal was glowing, the incense smoke was billowing and with my first great swing I struck the foremost member of the congregation in the face with my enthusiastic salutation. A rustle which sounded like giggling ran through the congregation. I do not need to describe my mortification. It is enough to say that the moment of contact between thurible and chin pinned that Christmas in my memory – where it has remained over some seven decades.

My Christmas of fear was 1954. Instead of Midnight Mass I found myself on my own in a three-ton truck on the top of an Austrian mountain at many degrees below zero. Although inexperienced, I was the senior Catholic officer in the barracks and so charged with getting the Catholic families to the monastery of Sekau by midnight.

We had started out quite well but as the cold came down the truck began to slip and slide. I asked Corporal Anderson, our driver, to get out the chains for the wheels. Anderson, not the brightest card in the deck, had failed to bring chains. We continued until it was manifestly too dangerous. By then we were not far from Sekau below us in the valley, so I sent the party off on foot.

As I sat in the lorry, occasionally running the engine for warmth, there were moments of beauty: a starred night sky, the fresh, hard frozen snow and the sound of sacred music wafting up to me from below. Spiritual communion on a mountainside has much to commend it.

The fear started on the party’s return. Anderson refused to drive and, facing the prospect of Catholics frozen to death, I, with little experience of trucks, took the wheel. Army lorries of that vintage were crude: no four-wheel drive, unsubtle brakes and double declutching to change gear – now a lost art. Hills had to be taken at speed for a stall meant a slip into the abyss. Tight bends, often bordered by chasms, needed control through engine speed – brakes were lethal. I drove from fear to fear, from hill to valley – prayers to St Christopher punctuated by oaths. And when we finally reached barracks, my sustained fear had left me sweating profusely in the cold. At least Anderson seemed impressed. Happy Christmas.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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34 Responses to Christmas past

  1. Peter D. Wilson says:

    Many thanks. I couldn’t resist sharing it with friends, including an enthusiastic thurible-wielder

  2. John L says:

    The pressure of seasonal jobs is eating away at any time available for doing justice to the blog (see the high density of responses to your last one!)
    May I at least take the opportunity to wish God’s Christmas blessing on you and on all our correspondents (especially on A. D.).
    Health and happiness for 2015.
    John L

  3. John Nolan says:

    When incensing in a confined space it is a good idea to take a leaf out if the Dominicans’ book – in their rite they do not swing the thurible, but use a simple up-and-down action. It’s not ideal for smoke production, though. Merry Christmas!

  4. Brendan says:


  5. tyke says:


    At least it wasn’t the bishop that you hit… as _nearly_ happened to me the last time I was allowed to swing one of those things.

    Happy and Holy Christmas to all

  6. david sillince says:

    Your spiritual communion on a mountainside reminds me of the most beautiful Christmas story I know, Adalbert Stifter’s “Rock Crystal”

  7. John Nolan says:

    Quentin, I assume that you did not put Cpl Anderson on a charge on your return on Xmas day, despite his negligence and refusal to obey orders. He was after all a Catholic and presumably a National Serviceman. Your recollection of that nightmare drive sent shivers up my spine.

    • Quentin says:

      There was a little bit of me which said that maybe I should have checked the chains before we set out. I didn’t take his refusal as defiance but a roundabout way of saying he recognised that he wasn’t up to the job. I only put one man on a charge in all my time – that was a sergeant who was drunk when he was on duty.

      Incidentally, I learned a great deal about leadership (often by getting it wrong) which was to be invaluable to me in later years.

  8. Singalong says:

    A very happy and blessed Christmas to all.

    We are about to put up our decorations, which puts me in mind of my mother telling us of her childhood, a little over a hundred years ago now. Her parents did not produce the Christmas tree, or any other decorations, until after the children had gone to bed on Christmas Eve, so their first sight of the transformation was on Christmas morning. I have always tried to imagine the impact that must have made.

    One very happy memory I have is of walking along to Midnight Mass at a little convent chapel nearby, when our children were young, with snow just starting to fall, and everywhere very quiet and peaceful, then a prayerful, reverent Mass, and mince pies with the congregation and sisters afterwards, before we went home, a complete contrast to the one Quentin describes!

  9. Iona says:

    Singalong, your parents must have stayed up until 3.00 o’clock in the morning at least! – and no doubt you children woke at 5.00 or thereabouts, to see what Santa had left them. I used to go to Midnight Mass without the children, and then come home and fill the stockings, and that took long enough.
    I have had two thoroughly miserable Christmases, but lots of happy ones, and nothing remotely as terrifying as what Quentin has described.

    Happy Christmas to all, – am off down to London to spend it with my now-adult children, and two little grandchildren.

    • Singalong says:

      Iona, it was my grandparents. I don’t know how they did it, but there weren’t
      so many gifts and perhaps the children did not wake so early.

      Have a very happy time!

  10. St.Joseph says:

    I remember around 1943 I was very young (I dont want to sound glum) the war days, my father in France or somewhere fighting in the war, just my mother two brothers my older brother at Presentation College in Reading home for Christmas, and Gran living in Lambourn a country village (She would come over from Eire for Christmas). not without the blackouts-singing around the piano with my mother and my Gran playing the piano accordian, and we singing songs, I remember the lighted candles on the tree, one of my brothers stocking filled with an apple and an orange and a knitted elephant or doll made by by my Gran (Santa) Going up stairs with a lighted candle holder, mine pink my brothers blue, he with a I think Desperate Dan comic or Beano me with Dandy with a torch to read under the bed clothes, with blackouts.
    Being blessed by my Mum with Holy Water before we went to sleep and torches out!.
    I remember our next door neighbour a retired Anglican Vicar teaching me Away in a Manger for a Christmas party in a big hut for soldiers family and me singing it on stage and getting sixpence
    My Mum made all our or most of our clothes,aslo my Nan who was a ladies tailor (she would not be called a dressmaker!) My Mum had a lovely off white coat, she took in part, had it dyed red ( in those days one could have them dyed then made me a coat with belt,wearing it to Mass.My brother didn’t have a new coat and cried.

    At the moment I have to think where the cups and cereal bowl are!

  11. Hock says:

    Perhaps it was a unfortunate but I first read the links that Quentin provided about the High Court case involving the two Scottish Midwives, before reading his blog.
    Having read those first it has saddened my whole day and I therefore cannot join in the Christmas greetings that are being shared here.
    It seems extra sad that at a time when we should be celebrating new life in both its intimate and widest senses we find that the unborn have again been let down by a judicial system that seems to have been influenced by personal preferences rather than law.

    Not for the the first time people sitting in judgement have gone beyond their remit to pass into law something that was not even part of the question to be decided, but will bind from now on. Those who will suffer are the weakest and most vulnerable in our society.

    The whole judgement is one of ensuring that conscience objection is now defunct in practice. Indeed It would seem now the there is an obligation to kill a victim of abortion who is born alive so as not to ‘risk’ that life being nurtured, and that any medical person who wishes to exercise their conscience must refer the baby to someone who is in favour of the killing.
    The culture of death triumphs. I despair.

  12. John Nolan says:

    Commenting on the Appeal Court’s ruling, Jack Scarisbrick said: ‘There cannot be one law for a dependent unborn child and another for a dependent born one’. But this has always been the case. Murder and manslaughter are Common Law offences and can only be committed against ‘a person who is in being’, i.e. completely extruded from the mother. The Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 created the offence of ‘child destruction’ which can apply to a viable unborn child and carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. It is also illegal to procure an abortion outside the terms of the 1967 Act; recently a woman who self-administered a drug which caused her to miscarry was given a suspended sentence and the judge said she could have been charged with child destruction.

    In this case the seven-year-old girl is a person with rights and is entitled to sue retrospectively. The case seems to have been lost on a technicality, but in English law to claim that an unborn child is a ‘person’ with ‘rights’ is quite wrong. Pro-lifers have (to my mind) an unanswerable moral case but need to get their facts right. ‘Abortion is murder’ is an emotive rallying cry but it is untrue and always has been.

    • St.Joseph says:

      John, you will probably know this. I dont ‘If a women who i s pregnant and is murdered, does the law say that this is a case of two deaths’?

      • John Nolan says:

        St Joseph, I’m no lawyer, but I assume that there must be intent to harm the unborn child. There was a case only last month where a man stabbed his pregnant girlfriend in the abdomen with the intention of killing her unborn child. Both survived (the baby was delivered by emergency C-section six weeks early). He was cleared of attempted murder but sentenced to 19 years imprisonment for malicious wounding and ten years (concurrent) for attempted child destruction. The judge said: ‘You intended to kill that child and it is only good fortune that prevented the execution of that truly wicked objective.’

    • Quentin says:

      Yes I notice that at 28 weeks it is accepted prima facie that the child is capable of being born alive, for the purpose of this legislation. This does not appear to have been amended.

      By the way, I now have the habit of referring to the entity in the womb simply as a human being. Terms like foetus, child or baby are often seen as partisan (on either side of the argument). ‘Human being’ is difficult to deny.

      • St.Joseph says:

        I dont know as to the legality of these issues and at the moment not able to look them up.
        But do you know if a person was on a life support machine and someone intentionally
        disconnected it, it would be classed as murder,
        Would that not be the same for an 18 week unborn baby in the womb depending on its mother for survival, that would still be murder. (to answer my (question above) it would be still killing someone. So therefore classed as murder, ‘discontinuing a life’.

      • Peter D. Wilson says:

        For us, it isn’t; for some others, an unborn child is “pre-human” or “Potentially human”.

  13. Quentin says:

    I think the issue depends on whether you are looking at it legally or morally. John has explained the legal position, which does not define it as murder. If you think that abortion is the killing of an innocent human being, and that doing so is murder then you define it morally as murder. None of which really gets us much further!

    • St.Joseph says:

      If someone intended to kill the mother but she lived bvut the ‘human being’died at 18 weeks what There must be a law somewherewould you thing the charges would be,. would it be manslaughter-do you think?

  14. Hock says:

    All this seems sadly at odds with decisions where the NHS is paying compensation to women where an abortion has not resulted in the death of the human in the womb. It would seem now that where such a person in born alive that someone has a medical obligation to kill it so as to remove the ‘risk’ of a new life being nurtured contrary to the wishes of the Mother.
    I understand that such children could just be left to die on a sluice sink ( could take hours to achieve.)
    We have now ‘progressed’ to some physical act by a person actually activating some procedure that kills at the point of birth.

    • St.Joseph says:

      I have read that the baby’s skull is broken! It was made illegal by Presidant Bush, then changed when he left. That was for deformed babies or hair lips and downes Syndrome.

    • tim says:

      If a child, that was intended to be aborted, is actually born alive, it becomes murder to kill her. This is not altered by the fact that the mother may have an action against the medical staff for not carrying out the abortion efficiently. It would be interesting to know what the law conceives to be the ‘duty of care’ towards such children, Will it boil down to: “Thou shalt not kill – but needst not strive Officiously to keep alive”? – lines originally intended as savage irony becoming a simple statement of the law?
      I’m not sure what these cases of ‘wrongful birth’ are about. I suppose they relate to children born with disabilities who would have been liquidated if the pre-natal diagnosis had not been missed.

  15. tim says:

    Oh, and a very Happy and Holy Christmas to one and all.

  16. St.Joseph says:

    A very Happy and Holy Christmas and a Healthy New Year to all.

  17. Hock says:

    Tim says : ‘If a child, that was intended to be aborted, is actually born alive, it becomes murder to kill her.’
    Not strictly true. To carry out a physical act that causes the immediate death of the child, eg. to give a lethal injection, then there would be a case of murder although if done in a medical situation I doubt that there would ever be a conviction for it, ( or even a charge of unlawful killing as this would be decided as being not in the public interest to prosecute.)
    However if the death comes about ‘naturally’ in that the child dies of neglect because nothing is done to preserve its life then that would not be murder although the end result is the same.

    • tim says:

      Hock, you are considering what would happen in practice, rather than what the law is. There is a great difference. The vast majority of abortions carried out in England and Wales are actually illegal. This is because they are carried out under the clause that says that it is legal to abort the baby if the risk to the mental health of the mother is greater from continuing to term than from an abortion. There is however compelling recent research that contradicts this.

      • Quentin says:

        I fear that it is not only mental health which is concerned. If the physical risks were ‘greater than if the pregnancy were terminated’ this would also provide sufficient reason. This clause was put forward by Reginald Manningham Buller, an anti-abortionist who believed that this clause would restrict abortions. The pro-abortionists couldn’t believe their luck; they knew that ordinarily carrying a foetus to term involved more physical risk than an early abortion. Diane Munday (spokesperson for the Abortion Law Reform Association) wrote ‘Nevertheless those of us who knew that medical abortion was safe were pretty sure that the law had been unintentionally liberalised and not restricted as had been intended.’

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