The stars were glittering, brilliant pinpricks in the inky black sky and every in breath froze my nose hairs and every out breath melted them. Mittens became handkerchiefs to swipe at my face.
The church was beautiful and unusually full, there were even folding chairs in the side aisles. The light was warm and golden and real Christmas trees surrounded the huge creche to the left side of the lower level of the altar. The priests were in their finest and the altar boys wore red robes underneath their white cassocks as they all proceeded in from the rear of the church instead of the side.
It was long enough ago that our parish had 3 priests and they all
celebrated each Christmas mass. But midnight mass was special -
the full choir sang from the choir loft in the rear. The traditional
hymns still warm me and take me back. One of my very favorites
is a woman singing O, Holy Night hitting the impossible high notes
My dad was one of the regular ushers. They would rotate so he sat with us when it wasn't his turn. If he was ushering and it was time to collect the offering with the felt lined baskets on the long poles he would shake it in front of me, trying to get more out of me - either mortifying me or reducing me to giggles depending on my degree of alertness. When he sat with us there was trouble to be had. My father had one of the worst singing voices in all of the midwest and he would sing at the top of his lungs just to make us laugh. You know that church laugh - uncontrollable shaking shoulders, fruitlessly trying to suppress any sound. This would elicit stern looks from my mother and we would whisper to her 'but Dad...'
'I can't control your father' she would snip - Dad would look piously (and smugly) toward the altar - he never got in trouble. If things got too out of hand she would get between Dad and us.
I remember kneeling and not being able to see over the pew in front of me. It was long past my bedtime and I would routinely get tunnel vision which I now know to be nearly falling asleep (or fainting) while I stood or knelt or sat. I suspect all of that changing of positions was precisely to keep the young and the old awake during the long and formal mass.
After it was over people would not linger - rather yell out Merry Christmas and quickly get into their freezing cars hoping they would start yet again in the cold night air.
When we got home we would be hurried off to bed, after all Santa Claus was coming and we all had to be asleep. I would wake to laughter as the younger two priests arrived, mom having prepared a fancy Christmas breakfast served at 1:00 am. I remember the grapefruit cut in half with a zigzag pattern, a cherry in the center and copious amounts of vodka poured over them before they were broiled. Dad was, no doubt, making his famous Bloody Marys. If nothing else, Catholics know how to imbibe. I have no idea how long the festivities would last having long since fallen back asleep despite my sister T's and my vow to stay awake to hear the sleigh bells.
Morning inevitably arrived and we would call out and see if we could get up yet.
'No go back to sleep' my mother would reply.
Yeah, right. Tell that to any kid who still believes in Santa Claus.
When we got the OK we would race down the hall to the living room and the tree. I had six siblings for a total of nine people in that house and sometimes the presents came five or six feet out from that tree (or so it seemed). Two of us would pass out the gifts. When all were distributed we ripped in to them all at once - it would have taken days if we did it one at a time.
'Mom look at this!'
'wow! look what Santa brought me!'
'oh, there is one here with no name on it'
A boisterous, messy time, wrapping paper and bows flying - a lovely time...
And when things had quieted down someone would remember the stockings and we would run off to get them, excitement building again. The stockings always had practical stuff in them like scotch tape and socks and an orange but lots of times if you dug way down in the toe you would find Hershey's kisses - manna from heaven as far as my chocolate-loving family was concerned. And that was as good a breakfast starter as any I've ever had.
We would run and get dressed for breakfast which consisted of eggs and bacon and orange juice AND homemade sweet rolls and caramel rolls. I would unwind them slowly and savor each bite.
The rest of the day would go s-l-o-w-l-y -- the after-excitement-let-down settling in until late afternoon when my cousins would arrive. My dad and Uncle Bill were brothers and he and Aunt Margie had seven children as well - pretty well matched up in age to us.
And complete chaos would ensue once again - all was right with the world.
This Christmas Gapetto and I are staying put with the Bunny Rabbit and the Dolly Llama. Gapetto is looking forward to the quiet. I will be remembering the days of mayhem with a smile...