O Holy Night
It came to pass in 1967 when John V. Lindsay was mayor in New York that I went up to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and caught the bus to Newburgh, NY. It was my first Christmas Eve home after being away at school at Cathedral College. I hurried through the station, clutching my little suitcase close to me, these being the ‘Midnight Cowboy” days in the big city.
Over Thanksgiving break I had decorated our front door of our home with two strings of big GE colored bulbs, the ones with little ridges on them giving them a depth of color. Every room of our house was elaborately decorated by my Mother. In the parlor, much to my disappointment, we had an artificial Christmas tree. This was because my mother was afraid of a fire starting ever since back in Brooklyn in the 1920’s , her two year old baby sister had caught on fire and died of severe burns. So I used to spray the fake tree with pine aerosol to give it an ersatz scent. Ornaments that we had collected over the years were all hung with care and lots of aluminum tinsel were draped on the bright plastic shiny branches. 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 – Holy Family, shepherds, angels, sheep, camel, donkey and Magi. Fake garland wound its way down the staircase banister along with Christmas Cards taped up all over the wall. In the bathroom was a Santa Hat toilet paper roll knit cozy. The kitchen was filled with waxen elves accented by holly & ivy potholders and dish towels. The dining room table was covered in a 1940’s style white linen tablecloth embroidered with brilliant red poinsettias with a big crystal bowl of fruit and nuts set in the center. Mr. R. H. Macy would have been proud.
Preparations for a modified traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner of “Seven Fishes” started in the afternoon. 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. Earlier in the day I had to open a dozen clams using a screwdriver and hammer. I never got the hang of shucking; usually smashing the shells open with the hammer which splintered 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 of detritus that ran the length of their bodies. My hands stunk to high heaven of the sea. Like Susan Sarandon in the movie “Atlantic City,” I cut lemons wedges and slowly wiped the briny smell off of my hands.
The celebration started at 5pm soon as it was dark and I dramatically snapped on the outdoor lighting. Crowlely’s artificial eggnog was served spiked with some rum as we watched the evening news on TV. Dinner was served later than usual, at 7pm – spaghetti with white clam sauce, shrimp Creole, fried shrimp and flounder with Tartar Sauce served with baby peas and broccoli. We quickly cleaned up and with great difficulty, put my brother and sister to sleep. I set out a plate of almond cookies for Santa and took a bite of one so it looked like he really had been there. Then I went upstairs to put on my jacket and tie.
My father stayed home as Mom and I went to Midnight Mass at our Italian parish of Sacred Heart Church. We would have to get there by 11pm to get a good seat. The church was in semi-darkness as the choir serenaded us acappella with a ceremony of carols. At midnight, the main doors of the church opened and a solemn procession started down the center aisle. First came three altar boys attired in special red cassocks and white lace surplices – one altar boy carrying a large gold crucifix flanked by the other two carrying candles. Another altar boy swinging a thurible, sanctified the way for the entrance of our pastor as celebrant. He was followed by the two assistant priests acting as deacon and sub deacon for the High Holy Mass. They wore ornate stiff Sicilian chasubles weaved with gold threading. At last came the youngest, most angelic altar boy carrying a statue of the Baby Jesus on a silver pillow.
The procession stopped in front of the side “Mary Altar” where an elaborate Neapolitan crèche lay away in darkness. The mass began there at the side altar and not on the usual main altar. It was very hushed with no singing. Then Msgr. Cantatore intoned – “GLORIA IN EXCELIS DEO…!” The organ blasted out and the choir lustily continued the Greater Doxology – “…ET IN TERRA PAX HOMINIBUS…” The steeple bell started to peal wildly and the altar boy almost breaking his wrist clamorously rang the brass hand bells. And suddenly all of the church lights shone to reveal an elaborate Neapolitan crèche with hundreds of figures, complete with working waterfall and a river running through Bethlehem. The monsignor took the Baby Jesus off the pillow and placed it between Mary and Joseph. “…BONAE VOLANTATIS!”
Msgr. Cantatore gave the usual holiday sermon in broken English but making it perfectly clear that he was expecting big bucks in the collection basket when it went around. 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 dollar bills in or made sure our coins silently fell to the bottom of the basket.
At communion time, my mother and I waited with anxious hidden glee for the soprano, Concetta Coniglio to sing her solo. We daren’t look back up over our shoulders to the choir loft to see this bovine, hefty woman, dressed in a peacock blue diva dress who imagined herself to be great Italian opera star, Renata Telbaldi Every year she would sing “O Holy Night.” We tried to hold back our laughter as she struggled to hit the big high C at the end of the carol. The sensation was akin to fingernails scraping across a blackboard or the squeal of the Lexington Avenue Line subway car rounding the tight corner at the Union Square Station at 14th Street.
O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!
The organ started the musical introduction as I got on the long line for Holy Communion behind Mrs. Peluso who was wearing a red fox stole with bristly hairs electrically charged from the cold. As I got near the alter rail, so did Concetta closing in on “Fall on your Knees” – the front car of the Cyclone roller coaster inching up to the perilous top before the loud cry of all the riders as they descended the steep incline. I piously knelt down at the altar rail trying not to listen to Concetta edging up closer to the bel canto precipice. Father Lombardo solemnly placed the wafer on my tongue but it sort of stuck to the roof of my mouth. I started back to my seat all the while trying to manipulate the wafer off when “Renata” rang out that top sour note. Trying to stifle a guffaw, the wafer spit out of my mouth out and landed on the back of Mrs. Peluso’s fox stole sticking to the red fur. With the snap of a static charge, I sacrilegiously, surreptitous plucked it off the stole and put the host back in my mouth now tasting of musk and Jesus. Back in the pew, I knelt down and didn’t look up again till the end of mass as the choir sang “Tu scendi dalle stelle”.
Fall on Your Knees
On the steps of the church after the mass was over, everybody was joyously wishing each other “Buon Natale” or Merry Christmas. It was then, like a star in the East shining down on the Christ Child I spotted Marc Burnett. I hadn’t seen Marc since we performed in the Passion Play the previous Easter where he played Jesus and I played Judas and we played each other, so to speak. I went over and gave Marc a seasonal warm hug and said hello to his Mom, Mrs. Burnett. She was leaving to go to her mother’s house to spend the evening and Marc quickly asked if I wanted to come over to his place for some hot chocolate. I gingerly asked my mother if I could go to Marc’s house for awhile. He would drive me home when we were done. She gave me a curiously knowing permission to go.
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 father’s car and turned on the radio. The sky was overcast with 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 era before seatbelts). My thigh lightly touched his as we chatted and caught up on our freshmen college semester.
Like the witches house in Hansel & Gretel, Marc’s Tudor Style home glowed with blue Christmas lights as we pulled up into the long driveway. Jumping out of the car, we ran to the front door and tumbled into the warm living room. It looked magical as a giant tree cast a rainbow of hues all across the room and our faces. Marc took me downstairs to the finished basement where he had a small pipe organ installed. He was a consummate organist and played me some pieces by Handel and Bach. I sat with my eyes closed listening in fascination. I felt like Christine listening to Lon Chaney play in “The Phantom of the Opera.” However before I could “unmask” him, Marc quickly got up at the end of a Bach Passacaglia and suggested we make hot chocolate and go to his room.
With steaming mugs warming our hands, we went upstairs and entered his bedroom quietly. He said he wanted to take a shower as he closed the bathroom door behind him. I turned off the lights and lay on the bed facing the bathroom door, imagining Marc getting undressed. I turned on the table radio on the night stand when I heard the sudden rush of the shower. I could also hear my heart beat as I smelled the iron rust like smell of the hard well water that began to mix in with the pungent scent of Irish Spring Soap. The windows of the room began to mist up with fog as the room grew hotter. The shower stopped.
After what I thought was an eternity, the door opened slowly and there stood Marc swaddled in an emerald green towel tied around his waist. With the bathroom light reflecting 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 hair that rose just above edge of the bath towel. On the radio, Jim Nabors was singing “O Holy Night” as Marc quietly lay down next to me. We held each other as I heard Nabors’ sing “O Night Divine.”
There was no room in the inn…
Suddenly waking up I looked at the clock radio and realized it was almost 5:30am. We 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 ”The Dead” by Irish author, James Joyce which I had just read in English Literature class.
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. Marc turned off the car lights as we turned the corner onto Cross Street. I got out without saying a word and almost slipped on the ice in the driveway. I quietly opened the front door of our house, ran upstairs and put on my flannel pajamas without waking my brother and sister. I ran back downstairs and since I was famished wolfed down all the Santa cookies. I pulled out my LP copy of “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. I plugged on the lights of the Christmas tree and put the Baby Jesus in the manger. Suddenly the “Halleluiah” chorus blared out throughout the house.
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 slowly walked down the staircase from the upstairs bedroom he shared with me and my brother. My father acted as Santa as we dove into the mountain of gifts, opening them up in wild abandon with gift wrap strewn all around us – toys, perfumes, pants, coats, scarves, sweaters, shirts, and ties. My mother collected up the bows for next year.
My Mom had gotten me the original cast album of The Apple Tree which was the second Broadway Show I had seen that fall. 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 almond chunk with a mysterious red threadlike strand. I chuckled as I flicked it behind the Christmas Tree.
Ah-h-h! We all feigned great delight at a pair of gloves my brother received from Aunt Laura when our dog Marigold jumped up and began licking me all over. She smelled the Irish Spring Soap. I ran over the Stereo and put on The Apple Tree and played Eve’s plaintive song to Adam as sung by Barbara Harris. I hummed along to myself and cleaned up the mess and tossed all the paper into a big hefty bag and got ready for Christmas Day Lunch.
What makes me love him?
It’s not his singing,
I’ve heard his singing,
It sours the milk
And yet, it’s gotten to the point
Where I prefer that kind of milk.
What makes me love him?
It’s not his learning.
He’s learned so slowly,
His whole life long
And though he really knows
A multitude of things
They’re mostly wrong.
He’s not romantic,
And yet I love him.
No one occasion
He’s used me ill
And though he’s handsome
I know inside me
Were he a plain man
I’d love him still.
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