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.