The strange thing about having older children is that they are very excited to get up and open their gifts, but they are also equally excited to go right back to bed afterwards. My husband, yawning, followed Meelyn and Aisling back upstairs, saying something about having an urgent appointment to broker some kind of deal between a pillow and a blanket, so right now, I am downstairs by myself (even the dogs are still asleep) in the quiet house with Christmas music playing on the Holiday Classics cable channel and no lights at all except from the television, computer and Christmas tree. It is lovely and cozy and very delightful, made even more so by the fact that Nanny is right at this very moment making a huge breakfast at her house for us all to tuck into in a couple of hours.
Midnight Mass was all that is beautiful last night. My husband and I had to go alone because the girls are both coughing, coughing and coughing. We made the executive decision to send them to bed not only so that they could get the extra rest they obviously need after coming off the terrible cold they're both recuperating from, but also to spare the congregation their volleys of finely-misted, germ-tainted saliva.
"You know how it is when somebody sits behind you and they keep on coughing," my husband said, rubbing the back of his neck and cringing a little bit. "You just feel like there's this....onslaught...of contagion that's being blasted right at you."
I winced, remembering a particular Sunday when the person behind me hacked, sneezed, snorted and cleared his phlegmy throat until I thought I was going to have to go home and bathe in a tub full of Lysol to remove the layer of pathogens he'd blasted me with. "I don't want to put anyone through that," I said, remembering how bursting-at-the-seams the church usually is on Christmas.
So the girls stayed home and went to bed, Meelyn (who has coughed all night long for the past three nights) weary and thankful, Aisling (who has coughed all day and all night for the past three days and nights) tearful and sad.
The altar was decorated with the church's gorgeous nativity scene and banked with poinsettias in a scarlet so rich and bright, it practically seemed to produce its own light. They were potted in crinkled gold paper and tied with big red bows. There were candles with greenery on all of the windowsills, plus big wreaths with red bows placed on the walls about the church. It was dim and lovely and hushed inside, the choir singing quiet carols in the loft above the crowd.
At midnight, the cantor, dressed in a velvet-trimmed plaid blazer and a black velvet skirt (very festive) came out and said with a smile what have to be my favorite words of the whole year: "Good morning and welcome to St. John the Apostle....and merry Christmas!" The bells in the tower outside were pealing madly; had to wonder about all the neighbors, whether they love it or hate it. I think I'd love it. We have church bells in our neighborhood which we can unfortunately only hear when the windows are open and they are my one of my favorite sounds of summer. But to hear the bells on midnight at Christmas....well, what a treat that would be.
The huge pipe organ was in good form, and when I say that all the stops were pulled out on that final verse of "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," I'm telling you that the walls were practically quaking. The choir sounded absolutely fantastic -- I don't know how long those people have been practicing, but they were really great. They had an extremely solid section of male voices, which sometimes isn't the case with seasonal choirs. There seem to be a lot of men who would rather watch football than go to choir practice. I'm not sure why that is.
The readings were perfectly beautiful, the first being from Isaiah, the verses about how for us a son is born who shall be called Wonderful Counselor, et cetera. Never fails to bring tears to my eyes. After the responsorial psalm and the second reading, Father read the Gospel selection, which was, of course, the Christmas story from Luke and those shepherds, who were just having an ordinary sort of night until the sky was filled with a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and singing and they were scared spitless. And really, who could blame them?
But then they went to see the Baby....
My husband and I went out into the frosty air after Mass, holding hands. "I'm always really glad to be Catholic," he said as we got into the car, "but on Christmas and Easter, I am particularly glad."
"Me, too," I said, looking back at the church, its windows glowing with warmth and light.
We got home to two sleepy dogs, who greeted us at the door, desirous of being put into their beds for a long winter's nap, as if that's not exactly what they'd been doing all day. Upstairs, the girls were snug in their beds, fast asleep and presumably dreaming of sugarplums, although there's a possibility that visions of clothing, bath and body products and gift cards were dancing through their heads.
My husband and I fell into bed, pulling the blankets up to our chins, warming our feet on each other. "Merry Christbzzzzzzzzzzzzz," my husband breathed.
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