I remember in my days as a choirboy going carol singing — be-cassocked and lantern-carrying, blond and pink-cheeked, my boyish soprano piercing the frosty night air — as we trudged behind the Rector through the Christmas streets (or at least the wealthier bits; for the youngest, sweetest choirboy carried a collection box. It was a big responsibility for me). We ended up at the Big House where we were invited in to ‘sing for our supper’ — mince pies and chocolate log and a thimble-ful of sweet sherry for the older boys. And something stronger for the Rector and Choirmaster.
Then on Christmas Eve to bed early to be woken by my parents at 11.00 to get ready for Midnight Mass. St Giles Church on the hill in Sandiacre, candle-lit and holly-strewn, and haunt of a barn owl whose ghostly swoop caused many a heart to race after night services.
Midnight Mass actually, as I recall, started at around 11.30, timed so that just after midnight there would be several seconds of silence. As if nature paused, waiting. Then the choir would burst out with ‘Christians Awake, Salute the Happy Morn’. So evocative those old carols; I remember my early, childish romanticism being stirred by the desolation of the start of ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’. And ‘Adeste Fideles’, sung in Latin to a layered part-arrangement. I suppose we were what was called ‘high church’… bells and incense. We probably goes some way towards explaining why I think that if you’re going to have a religion it should at least seek to instill a sense of the numinous? I was brought up on the language of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, and some recent substitutions seem like ‘dumbing down’? Dunno. There are things that should be felt — glimpsed — and cannot be conventionally understood and analysed — such as spirituality, advanced calculus and the appeal of line dancing.
After Midnight Mass, back home. Steps ringing through empty streets. To bed, then up early. A stocking at the foot of the bed to open before breakfast… egg, bacon, mushroom, fried bread, because it was Christmas. Back to Church for the morning Christmas service (after an anticipatory glance at the presents under the tree, awaiting our return). On the way we’d look out for the children with new bikes, scooters, roller skates. Probably feeling a little smug that our present-unwrapping was still to come. This was always quite a ceremony, a pleasure prolonged. Presents handed out one by one in rotation. And we’d all watch each recipient — my mother, father, sister June, cousin Trevor who usually spent Christmas with us (his older sister Ann would stay with our grandparents) — open their present, sharing the pleasure, before moving on.
There’d be three family Christmas parties: one at ours and Aunt Kathleen’s alternately Christmas Day and Boxing Day, then the following Saturday at our grandparents. All followed a similar format: a late lunch then silly games (after the Queen’s speech, if it was Christmas Day), then high tea, which no-one really wanted ‘cos we’d been nibbling on dates, nuts, chocolates and tangerines all afternoon. But there were crackers, and after tea a small ‘Christmas Tree Present’ for everybody.
Then down the road to the Cratchett’s with a goose for Tiny Tim…