On Ghosts of Christmases Past
For more years than I can count, we’ve been going around the corner and up the hill to the church here for the Christmas Eve service. When Molly was small, she and I would walk up the hill in the dark, and sometimes she would sing with me. More recently, with the heathens–who generally don’t sing in public, and frown upon me when I do–we’ve been part of the pageant. To be specific, Rosalie has, several times, been Mary, and once was the angel of the annunciation in her long white gown and gold tinsel halo; Ben has always wanted to be one of the Wise Men, especially when our neighbor William (a very tall boy several years Ben’s senior) was the other of them (yes, they were each, apparently, a Wise Man and a half; or more likely, Ben was one of them and William the other two). The church itself has a tiny congregation, and in our experience has never quite had enough children to fill out the Nativity, so the uncovered parts have always been played by someone’s enormous yard ornaments. I have upon occasion filled in as a reader, and one year attempted to have some of the kids play Christmas carols with me on their band instruments (with questionable success, though we meant well).
This year there was no pageant, which is just as well–the heathens seem to have outgrown their desire to participate. On Christmas Eve, the service was of lessons and carols. Quite frankly, that’s my favorite kind: because the carols are ones to which most of us around here know the words–at least, to the first couple of verses. The minister leading the service Saturday night, Terry, said he hoped we were in fine voice, because we would be singing all the verses to all the songs. He wasn’t kidding, either. Much to everyone’s surprise, in the first carol, “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful,” he leapt vigorously into that popish Latin verse the Methodists always include in their hymnal. Yes! I spent years and years studying Latin, and this time of year I got to sing that verse as well as “Roma Ardet” (don’t ask, really). One of my earliest memories of my grandfather was of him singing that Latin verse to this song–but he had grown up a good Irish Catholic altar boy, after all. Still, though the white frame Methodist church up here is a far cry the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception at the foot of Munjoy Hill in Portland in the early 1900’s, I could still hear Granddad singing with us–it’s just another way that man haunts me.
Ironically, the second song was “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem,” which was my grandmother’s favorite. She tried valiantly to teach me to play it on the piano when I was first learning–but that was hopeless. It’s one of the few songs I can remember her actually playing–by the time I began on her piano, her arthritis was so painful
that she very rarely touched the instrument, save to march out of the kitchen to plunk a key or two when I’d gone dreadfully wrong in my practice. Still, it’s the song I can’t hear without thinking of her, and the way she’d lean over my shoulder, tilting her head to better see through her bifocals, and reaching a gnarled hand around to correct me. Then she’d sing a bit, sigh a bit, and go on back to the kitchen.
My brother, too, had a favorite Christmas carol–though why I remember this, I’m not sure. His was “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and wouldn’t you know it–that was the third carol on Saturday night. Once we got that far, I felt surrounded, by the ghosts of my Christmases past. Sadly, I don’t know if my parents had favorites; come to think of it, neither of my sisters are ghosts by any stretch of the imagination, but I don’t know whether they have favorites, either. Mine has always been “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and that’s mainly because of those swooping glorias in the refrain. This one was not included on Christmas Eve, and that made me rather sad: it’s lovely to sing, and even more lovely to play on the trumpet. One year I had the great good fortune to play that song, accompanied by the church pianist, 80-some-odd-year-old Mildred Clifford; she, of course, was at the front of the church, but I swooped all those brass glorias from the choir loft above in the rear. I remember watching Mildred’s hands from up there, the better to mesh with her piano. The sound echoed ever so slightly from the tin ceiling overhead. It was
magic. Saturday night, Mildred said she’d like to do that again sometime. I should like to, too. Perhaps next year.
Saturday night I shared the hymnal with Ben. Afterward, he asked, “Did you hear me rocking those Christmas carols?” I had. I’d heard him, and I’d heard many other people, both living and dead. Funny how that happens. I wonder if they all heard him, too.