NOT LONG AGO JOY ABOUNDED AT CHRISTMAS
“I think the celebration of Christmas has changed within the short span of my own lifetime. Only twenty years ago, before World War II [sic] it seemed that Christmas was still being celebrated with a naive and joyous innocence whereas today you hear the expression, “Christmas comes once a year like taxes”. Christmas was observed all out in my Catholic French-Canadian environment in (the) 1930’s, much as it is today in Mexico. At first I was too young to go to midnight mass, but that was the real big event we hoped to grow up to. Until then we’d stay in our beds pretending to be asleep till we heard the parents leaving for midnight mass and then we’d come down and sneak a look at our toys, touching them and putting them back in place, and rush up again in the dark in gleeful pajamas tittering when we heard them come back again, usually now with a big gang of friends for the open house party.
When we were old enough it was thrilling to be allowed to stay up late on Christmas Eve and put on best suits and dresses and overshoes and ear-muffs and walk with the adults through crunching dried snow to the bell-ringing church. Parties of people laughing down the street, bright throbbing stars of New England winter bending over rooftops sometimes causing long rows of icicles to shimmer as we passed. Near the church you could hear the opening choruses of Bach being sung by child choirs mingled with the grownup choirs usually led by a tenor who inspired laughter more than anything else. But from the wide-open door of the church poured golden light and inside the little girls were lined up for their trumpet choruses caroling Handel.
My favorite object in the church was the statue of the saint holding little Jesus in his arms. This was the statue of St Antoine de Padoue but I always thought it was St. Joseph and felt that it was quite just that I should hold Him in his arms. My eyes always strayed to his statue, he who now with demure plaster countenance, holding the insubstantial child with face too small and body too doll like, pressed cheek against the painted curls, supporting in mid-air lightly against his mysterious infinite breast the Son, downward looking into candles, agony, the foot of the world, where we kneeled in dark vestments of winter, all the angels and calendars and spirey altars behind him, his eyes lowered to a mystery he himself wasn’t let in on, yet he’d go along in the belief that poor St.Joseph was clay to the Hand of God (as I thought), a humble self-admitting truthful saint – with none of the vain freneticisms of the martyrs, a saint without glory, guilt, accomplishment or Franciscan charm – a self-effacing grave and demure ghost in the Arcades of Christendom – he who knew the desert stars, and spat with the Wise Men in back of the barn – arranger of the manger, old hobo saint of haylofts and camel trails – my secret Friend. Now in midnight mass I gloried proudly in his new honorable position at the front of the church, standing over his family in the manger where all eyes were turned
After mass the open house was on. Gangs would troop back home or to other houses. Collectors for a Christmas organization of Medieval origin and preserved by the French of Quebec and New England, called “La Guignolee“, and now sponsored by the Society for the Poor, St.Vincent de Paul, would appear at these open house parties and collect old clothes and food for the poor and never turn down a glass of sweet red wine with a crossignolle (curlier) and even join in singing in the kitchen. They always sang an old canticle of their own before leaving. The Christmas trees were always huge in those days, the presents were all laid out and opened at a given consensus. What glee I’d feel to see the clean white shirts of my adults, their flushed faces, the laughter, the bawdy joking around. Meanwhile the avid women were in the kitchen with aprons over best dresses getting out the tortierres (pork pies) from the icebox. Days of preparation had gone into these sumptuous and delicious pies, which are better cold than hot. Also my mother would make immense ragouts de boulettes (pork meatball stew with carrots and potatoes) and serve that piping hot to crowds of sometimes 12 or 15 friends and relatives: her aluminum drip grind coffee pot made 15 large cups. Also from the icebox came bowls of freshly made freshly cooled cortons (French-Canadian for pate de maison), a spread to go on good fresh crusty bread liberally baked around town at several French bakeries.
In the general uproar of gifts and unwinding of wrappers it was always a delight for me to step out on the porch or even go out on the street a ways at one o’clock in the morning and listen to the silent hum of heaven diamond stars, watch the red and green windows of homes, consider the trees that seemed frozen in sudden devotion, and think over the events of another year passed. Before my mind’s eye was the St.Joseph of my imagination clasping the darling little child.
Perhaps too many battles have been fought on Christmas Eve since then – or maybe I’m wrong and little children of 1957 secretly dig Christmas in their little devotional hearts.”
– Jack Kerouac from The New York World Telegram and Sun, December 5th 1957