“Cantique de Noel”
“O Holy Night”
And it came to pass in those days when John V. Lindsay was mayor of New York, the city was in crisis, and war was raging in the East that Anthony went up from Manhattan to the Hudson Highlands – it being Anthony’s first Christmas Eve at home after being away at Cathedral College, a preparatory seminary on the Upper West Side. The journey took two hours, leaving neon and grit and passing unto mountains and malls. Anthony’s mother met him at the little, tawdry bus station, in the abandoned and violent city of Newburgh that tumbled down Broadway to the Hudson River. Their flight passed houses festively lit in blue and white, under stop lights of red and green, past a Dickensian spectral cemetery on the right, a vast field of hay opposite, finally sharp left turn down a country lane, and right onto tar and gravel street to their home in the town of New Windsor, New York – December 24th, 1967.
It was slightly snowing as my mother pulled into the macadam driveway, arriving at our two story Cape Cod house. Even before I had dropped my bag and taken my winter coat off, my mother demanded that I decorate the front door for Christmas. “What would the neighbors say” (actually our next door neighbor lived in a trailer so who could cast stones?). I kept my winter coat on, went down the cellar steps and dug around in semi-darkness to retrieve some decorations. I pulled out three strings of big GE colored bulbs, the ones with little ridges on them giving them a depth of color that warmed your hands on this cold night. I ran them around the frame of the front door and the two side windows, making sure it was all balanced, the colors were in sequence and all the bulbs worked (if one went out, they all did). I stood back, plugged them in and admired how nice they looked, like a small Ginger Bread House complete with a witch inside. I unplugged them and made my way back to the basement, hung my wet coat on the clothesline and went upstairs.
Mom had elaborately decorated all the downstairs rooms. In the parlor, much to my disappointment, we had an artificial Christmas tree. My mother was afraid of fire ever since her baby sister caught on fire years ago and died of severe burns. So I sprayed the fake tree with pine aerosol to give it an ersatz scent. Fragile glass ornaments that we had collected over the years were hung with care and lots of aluminum tinsel were tidily draped on the bright, shiny twisted and stunted green, plastic branches - having been packed, repacked and crammed to many times into its brown carton box.
On top of the TV set was a manger we had bought at Woolworth’s. It had a complete set of figures made out of some hard mysterious chalk material – The Holy Family, shepherds, angels, sheep, cows, camel, and donkey. The Magi: Melchior, Caspar and the Negro King, Balthasar were placed on the side lamp table as we moved them at it closer to January 6th. Fake garland wound its way down the staircase banister along with Christmas Cards taped all around the big living room hanging wall mirror. In the bathroom was a knit Santa Hat toilet-paper roll cozy. The kitchen was filled with slightly melted waxen elves accented by my mother’s handmade holly & ivy handmade potholders and dish towels. The dining room table was covered in a 1950′s style white linen tablecloth embroidered with brilliant red poinsettias. A big Check Slovakian cut crystal bowl of fruit and nuts sat in the center set off by two matching candles sticks. We never lit the candles. A sprig of fake mistletoe hung in the foyer by the dirty beige wall telephone. Mr. R. H. Macy would have been proud.
Preparations started in the late afternoon for the traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner of “Seven Fishes.” First came the spaghetti with white clam sauce. My mother sort of cheated on this dish using a can of Progresso clam sauce as the base to which she added fresh clams. I had to open a dozen clams using a screwdriver and hammer. I never got the hang of shucking. I resorted to smashing the shells open with a hammer which splintered shards into the clam milk. It took me a long time to strain the shards out. My other job was to clean the shrimp. I spread newspapers over the kitchen table and pulled off the outer shell carapace and violently tugged off the legs. I then used a small paring knife to devein the shrimp removing that ugly black line that ran the length of their little pink bodies. Like Susan Sarandon in the movie “Atlantic City,” I cut lemons wedges and slowly wiped the fishy smell off of my hands.
The celebration officially started as soon as it was dark. I dramatically snapped on the outdoor lights that I had hung that afternoon and put the Baby Jesus in the crèche. We drank Crowley’s artificial eggnog spiked with some rum as we watched the evening news on TV. Dinner was served later than usual, at 8pm. Christmas Eve diner was at the kitchen table – Spaghetti with White Clam Sauce, Shrimp Creole, fried shrimp and sautéed flounder with Tartar Sauce accompanied by baby peas and broccoli. Not quite seven fishes but we counted seven mouthfuls to reach the magic number. No dessert tonight except for cookies we still left on a plate by the tree. We quickly cleaned up, wiping dishes and scrubbing pots. It was getting late. I grabbed a Christmas cookie from the Santa dish as I sprang up the staircase and put on my suit and tie to get ready for Midnight Mass. My father, brother and sister went to bed and I turned off all the inside lights and warmed up the car.
Midnight Mass at our Italian parish of the Church of the Sacred Heart was as dramatic as any verismo opera – pomp, pageant, incense and music. We would have to get there by 11pm to get a good seat. The church was in semi-darkness as the choir serenaded us a Capella with a ceremony of carols. Everyone was in their holiday finery, ladies in brightly colored dresses and men in jacket and newly gifted Christmas ties. Ushers in tuxedoes sat these scions of Italian Immigrants filling every row of pews to their fullest capacity. Our ancestors would not recognize this new modern church built in 1964. The old church was built by hand by its Italian parish’s stone masons, carpenters and electricians. In their honor the old steeple bell was hung high in the new metal Louise Nevelson like croft. We all waited in anticipation to greet our new pastor, Monsignor Salvatore Cantatore who started in September. We all still mourned the passing of Msgr. Salvatore Celauro. I guess you had to be a Salvatore to be prelate at Sacred Heart. Just before twelve all the lights of the church were extinguished.
Then at the stroke of midnight, the main gold doors of the church were thrown open and a wintry blast blew through the darkness. A solemn procession proceeded down the center aisle. First came three altar boys attired in special red cassocks and white lace surplices – one altar boy carried a large gold crucifix, flanked by the other two carrying candles, now the only light in the entire church, symbolic of the solstice, the year’s shortest day when light starts to return. Another altar boy swung his thurbile in lusty arcs, sanctifying the way for the entrance of our new pastor as celebrant. He slowly walked down the aisle, dimly lit by the two beeswax lit tapers. Just behind him, followed Father Leo and Father Lombardo, our two assistant priests acting as deacon and sub deacon for the High Holy Mass. They ambled like two penguins loaded down with ornate stiff heavy silk Sicilian chasubles embroidered with gold and silver threading. At last came the youngest, most angelic altar boy carrying a statue of the Baby Jesus on a silver tufted pillow.
The procession continued past the main altar, turned right and stopped in front of the side “Mary Chapel” We all stood in silence nary a cough, only the quiet shuffling of our wet boots on the terrazzo floor. Then our pastor dramatically turned around facing the congregation and choir and loudly intoned in Latin: “GLORIA IN EXCELIS DEO…!” The organ blasted out, the choir lustily sang, “ET IN TERRA PAX HOMINIBUS BONAE VOLANTATIS,” the old steeple bell pealed wildly and one altar boy almost sprained his wrist clamorously ringing his brass hand bells. And suddenly all of lights of the church were turned on, revealing an elaborate Neapolitan crèche with hundreds of carved Nativity figures, gamboling over the country side, crossing a river with working waterfall on their way to the stable in Bethlehem. The choir continued as Msgr. Cantatore took the Baby Jesus off the pillow, raised it high in the air and gently placed it in the crib between Mary and Joseph. The Christ Child was born bringing light and grace back to the troubled world.
The procession went back to the Main Altar to start the holy service, Msgr. Cantatore chanting the Kyrie. He made his name sake proud, Cantatore meaning singer in Italian or Cantor in Hebrew. However his-a English wa-ssa nota so good but at the end of his holiday sermon he made it perfectly clear that he was expecting big bucks in the collection basket. The ushers walked down the aisles in military precision extending their sliding extension pole baskets to reach the center of each pew. Those who had money made a great show of putting in 10 or 20 dollar bills so everyone could see. The rest of us furtively tossed our one and five dollar bills in or made sure our coins silently fell to the bottom of the basket.
As it neared communion time, my mother and I knew what was coming next as we looked at each other with anxious hidden glee for the soprano, La Diva, Concetta Malavoce to sing her big solo. We daren’t look back over our shoulders up to the choir loft to see this zaftig woman, crammed into her old peacock blue bridesmaids dress. With grand expression and sour notes she imagined herself to be great Italian opera star, Maria Callas. Every year during communion she would try to sing the famous French carol, “Cantique de Noel or O Holy Night.” My mother and I sometimes unsuccessfully couldn’t control our giggles when she began, “O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining. It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.” We knew this was leading to the famous High C at the end. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining. Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.” She just couldn’t quite reach that difficult high note but if you looked back up at her you think she was at La Scala with all of her claque applauding widely. “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
Her aria continued as I got on the long line for Holy Communion. I followed behind Mrs. Peluso who was wearing (draped over her shoulders, not hiding her décolletage) a red fox stole with long bristly hairs electrically charged from the cold. As I got near the alter rail, Concetta closed in on “Fall on your Knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!” It was like being on the front car of the Cyclone as Concetta voice rose higher, inching up to the perilous top as she screamed out and the roller coaster descended. ‘Oh night divine, Oh night when Christ was born” I piously knelt down at the altar rail trying not to listen as she edged up closer to a bel canto precipice. Father Lombardo solemnly placed the wafer on my tongue – “Body of Christ” I murmured “Amen.” The wafer stuck to the roof of my mouth. I started back to my seat trying to manipulate the wafer off with no success. Then La Diva rang out that top sour note. “Oh Night, Oh Night, Oh Night Divine”!
The wax in my ears moved, my eyes winced, I choked trying to stifle a giant guffaw when the wafer spit out of my mouth out and landed on the back of Mrs. Peluso’s fox stole sticking to the red fur. I quickly sacrilegiously plucked the wafer off the stole that had stuck to the red hairs of the fur. I put the host back in my mouth now tasting of musk and Jesus. Keeping my head down, I almost missed my pew. I knelt down and my mother gave me a nudge and it was mighty hard not to laugh. The choir sang the famous Italian carol, “Tu scendi dalle stele” during the second collection. The sub deacon and deacon cleaned and put the chalices in the tabernacle and opened up the missal to the final page. Father Leo held up the book, as our pastor turned around to face the congregation and intoned. “The Mas is ended. Go in Peace!” Mom and I rang out, “Thanks be to God!” and thanking God we didn’t have to hear Concetta Malavoce till Easter!
“Fall on Your Knees”
And it came to pass, that the congregation departed the church with haste. But some went to the front of the church and found both Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger. And they adored. And when they saw it, they made known concerning the saying which was spoken to them about this child. And outside, a bright star and moon shone in the heavens.
On the steps of the church everybody was joyously wishing each other “Buon Natale.” Msgr. Cantatore was smiley widely, the collection must have been a good take. All the ladies were fawning over him and their husbands preened and lit cigars or cigarillos. It was then, like a star in the East shining down on the Christ Child, I spotted Marc Burnett looking like the Apollo Belvedere. I hadn’t seen Marc since we performed in the parish passion play the previous Easter where he played Jesus and I played Judas and we both played with each other between Stations of the Cross. I left my mother who was smoking a Kent and went over to give Marc a seasonal warm hug and say hello to his Mom, Mrs. Burnett. She said she was leaving with her mother to spend the evening there. I never met Mr. Burnett since they were scandalously divorced. Marc quickly asked if I wanted to come over to his place for some hot chocolate. Of course, I glowed! I gingerly asked my mother if I could go to Marc’s house for a while. He would drive me home later. She stomped on her Kent, giving me a sly knowing look and gave me a passive/aggressive “yes” to go. A mother always knows….
Marc lived in a large house in Balmville, one of the more upscale neighborhoods surrounding Newburgh. The night had turned frigid as we hopped into his mother’s car and turned on the radio. The sky was overcast with clouds and now nary a star, so it was quite dark out as we made our way through the back roads. Pretending to change one of the stations, I slid a bit closer to Marc (this was the days before seatbelts). My thigh lightly touched his as we chatted and caught up on our freshmen college semester, mine in New York, his in Boston. I laid my hand lightly on his thigh. There was static in the air. He placed his on mine, steering with one hand.
Like Little Ride Riding Hood’s Grandmother’s house, Marc’s Tudor Style home glowed with red Christmas lights as we pulled up into the long driveway. In the frosty air, our breath almost seemed tangible as we jumped out of the car, ran to the front door, kicked off our boots and tumbled into the warm living room. A giant Christmas tree cast a magical rainbow of hues all across the room and our faces. We stood in front of the tree for a long time as I stared at the tree and the colors washing over Marc’s handsome face. He caught me staring and our eyes met. He quickly suggested we go downstairs to the finished basement where he had a small pipe organ installed. He was a consummate musician and played me some pieces by Handel and Bach. I sat on a lime green bean bag with my eyes closed listening in fascination, enraptured by the full sound of the organ, its waves of music washing over me, penetrating my soul. I felt like Christine listening to Lon Chaney play in “The Phantom of the Opera.” However before I could “unmask” him, Marc ended a Bach Passacaglia with a flourish, stood up, bowed and suggested we make hot chocolate and go to his room. I applauded madly.
We made the hot chocolate in silence, as I hoped this was only the prelude to our evening’s theme and variations. With steaming mugs warming our hands, we went upstairs and entered his bedroom. He said he needed to take a shower as he closed the bathroom door behind him. I turned off the lights and the clouds must have disbursed for now the whiteness of the new snow and the light of the moon cast a silver shadow across his bed. I walked over to his little twin bed, took off my jacket and tie, opened the top button of my white shirt and loosened my belt. I lay on the bed facing the bathroom door, imagining Marc getting undressed. I turned on the table radio on the night stand and found a Christmas station. I heard the sudden rush of the shower. I could hear my heart beat as I smelled the shower’s iron rust smell of the hard well water that began to mix in with the pungent scent of his Irish Spring Soap. The windows of the room began steam up with fog as the room grew hotter. The only light was from the radio dial. The shower stopped.
After what I thought was an eternity, the door opened slowly and there stood Marc wearing only fern green towel tied around his waist. With the bathroom light reflecting behind him off the medicine cabinet mirror, Marc looked like the Resurrected Christ I remembered from the spring passion play. The deep green pile contrasted so well against his rosy white ivory skin set off by his fiery red bush that rose just above edge of the bath towel. On the radio, Jim Nabors was singing “O Holy Night” as Marc stood over me. There was no room in the inn in this little twin bed. I stood up and we held each other without speaking a word. I heard Nabors’ sing “Fall on your knees”. He did.…
“C’est l’heure solennelle
Ou l’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’a nous
Pour effacer la tache originelle
Et de Son Pere arreter le courroux”.
Oh Night Divine!
Afterwards, we had fallen asleep so close to each like two sleeping puppies. Waking up I looked at the clock radio and realized it was almost 6:30 am. Like Cinderella, I had to be home by 7 am for the opening of the Christmas presents. I almost fell over putting on my clothes. My prince and I ran out to the car in the cold dawn. Marc warmed up the engine as I hastily scraped the ice from the front windows. As we drove back to my house the snow began to fall and I thought of the final famous sentence from the short story I had just read in English Literature class, ”The Dead” by James Joyce..
“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
It didn’t take long to get to my house in New Windsor since the roads were empty on this Christmas morning. We held hands the whole short ride home. I wished we could have drove to New York City to my little dorm room on W. 86th Street and be together all Christmas Day. Marc turned off the car lights as we turned the corner onto Cross Street. It was still dark on this silent night but Mom had left the Christmas lights on. I adventurously leaned over took my angel’s face in my hands and kissed him oh so gently and oh so sweet. I calmly got out without saying a word, but I turned back and gave him a long look. “Buon Natale!” I almost slipped on the ice in the driveway.
I slowly opened the front door of our house, glided upstairs and put on my flannel pajamas without waking my Dad, brother and sister. I ran back downstairs and since I was famished wolfed down all the Santa cookies that had been left out the night before. I pulled out my LP copy of the “Messiah”conducted by Eugene Ormandy with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I silently opened the lid of the stereo, put on LP #3 and turned up the volume all the way. The “Halleluiah” chorus blared out throughout the house. I plugged on the lights of the Christmas tree and put the Baby Jesus in the manger.
I heard a couple of th-thumps from the upstairs bedrooms as Karen and Michael came running down. Mom in her floral nightgown came out of the downstairs bedroom, while my Dad shuffled down the staircase from the upstairs bedroom he shared with me and my brother. My father donned a Santa hat and we dove into the mountain of gifts, as he handed them to us one at a time. We opened them up in wild abandon with gift wrap and ribbon strewn all around us – toys, perfumes, pants, coats, scarves, sweaters, shirts, and ties. I collected up the bows for next year.
Oooh! We all feigned great delight at a pair of gloves my brother received from Aunt Laura. Oooh! Karen got a scarf and I got a key case from her. My mother liked the Jean Nate Bath Oil I gave her and dad loved his flannel shirt. My Mom got me the original cast album of The Apple Tree which was the second Broadway Show I had seen that fall. Of course, I had asked for this, so it wasn’t a surprise. As I was reading the liner notes, I was struggling to remove a piece of cookie stuck in my teeth. Try as I may I couldn’t get my tongue around it to dislodge it. Finally ungracefully, I poked my finger into the crevice and out came a small cookie chunk with a mysterious red threadlike strand. AHA! I chuckled as I flicked the hair on the Christmas tree and swallowed the cookie. Our dog Marigold jumped up and began licking me all. I think she smelled the Irish Spring Soap.
Everybody went to their rooms to get dressed for our Christmas luncheon of Baked Ham served in the dining room; there would be dessert. I took the “Messiah” off the player and put on “The Apple Tree.” All alone in the living room, I sat under the tree and listened to the overture and openings songs of the musical based on the short story, The Diary of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain. The tree glowed, I half suspected it to grow like in” The Nutcracker”.
The parlor was still empty. The snow started faintly falling as I swooned a little looking out the window. Then came Eve’s plaintive song to Adam wondering what made her love him after spending a life time in and out of Eden. The beautiful Barbara Harris sang the song with great love and melancholy. Her performance in all three of the short stories that made up “The Apple Tree” would haunt me forever. I hummed along to myself and mouthed the words. I daren’t sing them out loud lest someone walk in and see me crying. Listening intently to the lyrics, I thought of the night, the cold, the Christmas lights, the Baby Jesus, even imagining Concetta singing “O Holy Night” in perfect pitch, my aunt who died long ago in Brooklyn, the gifts, the red fox fur, of The Magi and of my Marc-
“What makes me love him?
It’s quite beyond me,
It must be something
I can’t define.
Unless it’s merely
That he’s masculine
And that he’s mine.”
New Year’s came and went and on January 6th, the Epiphany, the lights came down from the front door and put back in the basement, the Christmas tree was dismantled and crammed back into that brown carton and the little figures of the manger were carefully wrapped in tissue paper and put in a shoebox till next year. The next day my mother drove me to the bus station and I went back to seminary. I didn’t see Marc again till fifteen years later when in 1981 perchance I ran into him at a play in Boston. The play was called “Fools”.