A Different Christmas

“Someone waving in the window at me
And I say “Hey there, what are you waving at?”
When he says “What do I have to lose,
Somebody might wave back”
What do I have to lose,
Somebody might wave back”

– Mike Scott

With the possible exception of my cousin Anita, no one loves Christmas more than I do. I love the tree, the lights, the presents, the telly, the food, the crackers, the hats, the food, the excess, the family time, the quiet, the noise, the joy, the food, the wine, the togetherness, the midnight mass, the nervous anticipation, and the food.
In fact , in our house, we have two Christmases, our Christmas day at home, just us, and then Second Christmas at Mam & Dad’s with my brothers and all of our families together.

It will be a very different Christmas this year.

I’ve only ever spent Christmas Day away from my family once. It was 1984 and I was in the Holy Ghost Fathers. My group of novitiates were aged between 17 and 30 years of age and most had never lived away from home before. We spent that Christmas in Kilshane in a large old country house with a church built on to it and an extension with 60 small bedrooms from the days when fifty or more young men would join the Holy Ghosts each year. There were 11 of us and Fr.Hugh Boyle who had the misfortune to be responsible for us and another priest who lived in that large house on his own for most of the year, I’ll call him Fr.Brown for the purposes of this.
The old church was no longer in use, we had our daily masses in the oratory in the main house. For Christmas Eve neighbours were invited in so I thought it would be nice to take all of the old candlesticks, candelabras and anything that looked like it would hold a candle from the old church and decorated the oratory with them. I found a stash of old candles and lined three hundred of them all along a small wooden ledge that lined the walls on three sides of the oratory.

It looked stunning.

I was also responsible for the liturgy and the music. I had written out Prayers of the Faithful , had the readings ready and lined up hymns on my red Aiwa dual deck tape recorder. I wanted to play the recordings of the hymns to bolster the feeble warblings of our group. At the best of times Catholics are feeble hymn singers, and with only a few of us there, we needed all of the help we could get.

We would start with ‘Hark The Herald Angel’, have Ag Criost an Siol for the psalm , finish with ‘Silent Night’, and there was an instrumental piece from Handel’s Messiah for  the reflection after communion. Perfect.

The neighbours arrived at 10pm and were shown into the large reception room on the left, where we had tea, mulled wine and mince pies ready beside a roaring fire, and I darted off to the oratory to light my hundreds of candles. It took me 30 minutes to light them all. I switched off the electric lights , it looked stunning. I went and told Fr.Boyle that everything was ready and he asked if everyone would make their way to the oratory. I drank in the ‘ooohs’ and ‘Aaaahs’ everyone made when the saw the candlelit oratory as if it was the finest champagne. I hit play on my red Aiwa dual deck tape recorder and we all joined in with ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’ and I relaxed a little. All was grand.

After the first reading I hit ‘play’ again on my red Aiwa dual deck tape recorder to play ‘Ag Críost an Síol’ and as it started I noticed that one of the candles on the wooden ledge had burned down alarmingly and was leaning dangerously close to the one standing next to it and I had visions of burning candles tumbling in a domino effect setting our congregation alight. I figured there was a verse and a chorus left so I left my seat , left of the altar and made my way along the three sides of the oratory to get to the opposite side without walking across the altar and drawing attention to myself. I made it to the candles before they collided and snuffed the offending one out, burning my thumb and muffling a little moan as I made my way back just in time to stop the tape before it ran into the next hymn.

The next 20 minutes were some of the most stressful of my life. I’d stupidly picked myself to read the second reading and as I read one of St.Paul’s annoying letters, which always remind me as a Holy version of a howler in Harry Potter, I kept stumbling over words as I noticed yet another staggering candle that was veering too close to it’s neighbour. As soon as I finished the reading I proceeded to the back of the oratory rather than my seat, snuffed out three dangerously erratic candles, muffled three more moans and was worried in the half light that my thumb was swelling alarmingly before realising it was simply covered in layers of candle wax. I decide to stay in this position, at the back, so I could observe and attend to an increasing number of willful candles who simply refused to do what I’d intended, stay upright and look lovely, and were rebelling against nature, God…and most importantly , me.

By the time communion arrived I’d extinguished almost half of the candles in the church, and both my thumbs and index fingers were black, numb and three times their normal size. I sat down for a moment and noticed Fr.Brown nodding at me in between serving the communicants, and I realised that I hadn’t started the communion music, Handel’s ‘Messiah’. I hit play once more on my red Aiwa dual deck tape recorder before darting down the back once more to stop three candles joining together in a puddle of molten wax on the floor. As I snuffed out the last candle I realised with horror that the music we were all listening to during our communion reflections wasn’t Handel’s Messiah…it was Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Welcome To The Pleasure Dome’..I’d pressed play on the wrong deck !

I made it to the tape recorder just as Holly Johnson started to delightfully announce :

“Who-ha who-ha who-ha
In Xanadau did Kublai Khan
A pleasure dome erect”

 As I switched to deck ‘A’ and Handel’s Messiah, I could sense Fr.Brown was glaring at me. At least I think he was, I’d spent the mass snuffing out so many of the candles that it was rather darker than I’d intended. Before the mass ended I hit play for the last time and as Silent Night started I made my way to the back of the oratory once more and switched on the main lights.

When the mass ended Fr.Brown invited everyone back to the reception room for more mulled wine and mince pies. I was left alone in the oratory for a few moments, putting out the last of the candles, and realising that I’d be spending most of tomorrow back in here with sugar soap trying to remove scorch marks on all the walls.
As I entered the reception room I got a round of applause. Everyone thought that I’d deliberately and  gradually put out the candles to bring the light down as the mass progressed so that there would be a big contrast at the end when the main lights went on and we roared along to Silent Night.

Everyone applauded.

Everyone except Fr.Brown. He approached me on his own later.

“That was that group that was banned by the BBC wasn’t it ?”

Yes Father, but not for that particular song.

“What was that song called ?”

The one I played at mass or the one about..

“Not that one !” He shuddered involuntarily.” The one you played at mass.”

‘Welcome To The Pleasure Dome’, Father.

“Hmm,’Pleasure Dome’ you say…Hmmm… it was much catchier than Handel, such a dreary chap I always felt.” And with that he raised his glass of non-alcoholic mulled wine to me and said “Cheers”.

Our novitiate in Tipperary is now a hotel, a wedding hotel no less, Kilshane House. It’s advertised regularly in the Sunday supplements and magazines. Every time I see the advert I think that I almost burnt it to the ground. I think of Fr.Brown living alone in it’s once empty vastness. I think about that Christmas away from home.
I smile. It made me appreciate all of the Christmases that I have spent at home with my family.

This year we won’t be having our Second Christmas with Mum & Dad and my brothers’ families.

It will simply make us appreciate next year’s even more.

Happy Christmas,

P.S. Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Welcome To The Pleasure Dome‘….a Christmas classic

Author: paul

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