Light streaming from an open church door across the snow, a priest in full vestments standing at the door to shake hands with his parishioners as they muffled their faces against the winter cold and headed for their cars, their breath steaming in the frigid air and snow crunching underfoot.
It was near midnight and the end of a Christmas Eve service at a church in rural England more than 50 years ago. The centuries old church stood apart from the village isolated among trees on the edge of a heath. This was open and public ground where local authorities grudgingly let the gypsies camp with their wagons and horses.
Once or twice a year they would come to our door selling clothes pegs handmade from split hazel wood gathered from the hedges. But the officials believed they lived mostly by stealing and would not let them stay long.
Back at the church, all was still light and warmth within the building while parishioners hurried through the dark and cold back to their homes. The fragrance of incense hung in the air and the priest scurried around cleaning up, gathering forgotten scarves and gloves and drinking the last of the sacrificial wine.
This is my most poignant memory of Christmas Eve because my father was a religious man. While an elementary school teacher and ultimately headmaster by trade, he read the Bible every day and was a churchgoer all his life, singing in the choir and doing readings from the Gospels. Naturally he took his family too. We attended church every Sunday and always went to Midnight Mass at Christmas.
Incredible as it seems to me now, as a boy I wore a white surplice, ladled beads of incense on glowing charcoal behind the scenes and then trotted after my father while he swung a censer dispensing clouds of perfumed smoke throughout the church. With the chanting of the priest, the flickering light of candles and smell of incense, it became a kind of unearthly mirage, something seen in a dream or a drugged stupor.
This I learned later was a typical service of the Anglican Church but “high church” coming close to Catholic services in its centuries old rituals.
There were humorous moments among the solemnity. When not carrying the incense container called “a boat” because of its shape, I had the job of moving a large and heavy copy of the Scriptures back and forth on the altar steps behind the priest at significant parts of the service. I never figured out why this was necessary. But woe unto me if I stumbled, or finished on the wrong side. He would half turn and glance behind him with a furious whisper. Good job I knew he and my father were close friends.
Another Christmas I remember was a total contrast. Far more pagan. I was in my 30s, far from home, and living on a sailing boat alone in Florida. The holiday came and some boats hoisted a small evergreen tree to their yardarm or decorated their rigging with lights, which is traditional and pretty. I had made a few friends on the other boats in harbor but was lonely and wishing I was back home with family in California.
Then some amazing man I never met threw a party for the boat owners. At least he invited us all to a feast of fish grilled outdoors in a waterside park — I never visualized fish as food for Christmas — and, maybe more important, supplied with it unlimited supplies of rum and brandy.
It was a strange Christmas dinner. But very successful. Afterwards, we all staggered, waded or paddled, with frequent collisions, back to our boats full to our stomachs and happily drunk. At least we all made it back safely.
John Branch is editor of The Riverbank News and a staff reporter for The Oakdale Leader and The Escalon Times. He may be reached at email@example.com or 847-3021.