By Terence Winch
In our world, nothing compared
with Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
God's power surging through the congregation,
from altarboys in our stiff collars and big red bows,
to the solid men of the parish in their finest array:
Blue suits, gold wrist watches, crisp white shirts.
The women perfumed and girdled, lipsticked
and bejeweled. Enough incense
in the air to do the Wise Men proud.
The procession wound through the church,
organ honking, voices lifted in the special
Christmas sense of the slate wiped clean
and the universe beginning anew.
The tree in the house lit with fat colored bulbs
that looked good enough to eat. The old suitcase
full of fragile decorations, buried treasure found
every year on Christmas Eve and set free again.
The baby Jesus alive and well! Herod thwarted!
This called for presents. Toys, games, maybe
a watch or a knife. Along with Jesus came the whole
cast of Yuletide characters—Santa, Rudolph,
the Chipmunks, Bing Crosby, Frosty, Scrooge.
I'm surprised the Easter Bunny didn't crash
the event. My father put out apple pie
and a glass of milk for Sanny, the remaining traces
of which on Christmas morning were proof enough
for me and my brother Jimmy of the entire
supernatural infrastructure of Bronx Irish culture.
But it was the party after Midnight Mass
that I remember most. Relatives and neighbors
would pour into our apartment for an all-nighter.
My mother would get the percolator going,
and start making breakfast for half the parish.
Bacon, eggs, blood pudding, plates of fresh rolls
with poppy seeds bought that day
in the Treat Bakery on Tremont Avenue.
Eating breakfast at two in the morning!
This was a miracle for a ten-year-old boy.
Bottles of Seagram's and Canadian Club
stood at attention on the kitchen table,
silver ice bucket ringed with penguins
awaiting duty beside them. Ladies smoking
and gossiping. Glasses clinking. Laughter
throughout the house. The smell of pine,
the delicious aroma of sizzling bacon,
all welcoming Jesus back for another year.
Then the music and singing would start up,
my father on the banjo, P. J. Conway on the box.
The Stack of Barley, The Lakes of Sligo,
medleys of marches, waltzes, and polkas.
Theresa McNally, from my mother's own town
in Galway, would sing "Galway Bay." Steps would
be danced, jokes told, more drinks mixed and gulped.
I would go to bed so filled with the spirit
it seemed impossible to believe that life could
ever return to normal. Lying there exhausted,
but anxious to sneak down the hall at the earliest
opportunity and tear open the tantalizing packages,
I believed in everything: Jesus our Lord, Santa
our magic benefactor, my parents the immortal source
of the ongoing celebration that could never end.
From Boy Drinkers, published by Hanging Loose Press in 2007.
After a somewhat hectic morning trying to get packed -- we had to remember presents, fondue pots, power strips, and assorted clothing, and were visited by a neighbor to whom we'd brought a gift, plus my mother who wanted us to bring some things to my Paul's parents, all the while being stalked by suspicious cats who suspected they were being abandoned -- we headed in the late morning to Hanover, Pennsylvania. We stopped on the way at Boyds Bear Country, which is in the midst of its going-out-of-business sale, meaning that this was the last time we could visit -- a sad occasion, as we've visited at least annually for as long as my in-laws have lived in Pennsylvania. In addition to stuffed bears and hares, the store carries other collectible lines -- Thomas Kinkade paintings, Jim Shore sculptures, all at 50% or more off -- and we explored the first and second floors pretty thoroughly, but the place was closing at 2 p.m. for Christmas, meaning that we missed the liquidation sale on the top floor. It was fun and nostalgic for me -- here are some photos from the final days of Boyds Bear Country.
We drove into Hanover intending to stop at the discount shoe store where we've often gotten great buys on sneakers and dress shoes for the guys, which we did, though only after a stop at the Utz factory store for such necessities as chocolate covered pretzels, whole wheat honey sticks, and caramel popcorn. Then we arrived at Paul's parents, where instead of our usual Red Lobster now that some of us are vegetarians, we had cheese fondue for dinner and chocolate fondue for dessert (the former messier than expected because the cheese didn't want to stick to the potatoes or peppers, though it was lots of fun trying to wind it around the skewers, and the latter just awesome). My father-in-law has a bad cold and decided to skip church, so I did not get my annual dose of pipe organ-accompanied Christmas carols, but we had a nice evening and tomorrow if it doesn't snow, my parents are coming over for dinner before we all head home. Merry Christmas if you celebrate and have a lovely weekend if you don't!