In the lane, snow is glistening, A beautiful sight,
Christmas morning 1965, my father put his head around my bedroom door at 6.15 and said “John, we need to get ready for Mass.” I jumped out of bed, washed my face and hands, got dressed, putting on the shirt and jumper that had come some days previously in the big box from my uncle Tom in Canada. I also donned my short pants, my knee length socks, and my black shoes polished the night before. I had a cup of water, as we had to be fasting for three hours before receiving Holy Communion.
I took my surplus and soutane from the hanger over the cooker which my mother had starched and ironed and I carefully folded it before putting it in the small black bag.
We took our two bicycles from the barn and I placed the black bag securely on the silver carrier of my red Humber bicycle, which had been purchased the previous June in Mc Quillan’s in Capel Street, and brought home in the boot of our neighbour, Patsy Kieran’s white Ford Anglia car, YZA 136.
My father and I headed off on our bicycles for the three Masses in St. Marys Church, Inniskeen, which were celebrated on the hour,7.00, 8.00 and 9.00. The morning was so bright, lit up by a beautiful full moon, clear sky and twinkling stars that we hardly needed to switch on the flash lamps on the bikes. I have a vivid recollection of the beautiful image of the morning as we dismounted from the bikes to walk with them up Murphy’s hill. I shall never forget that very special experience-the silence of the morning was magical, apart from the occasional interruption by a cow calling in the distance and the air was sharply cold as I inhaled its invigorating purity.
I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen the moon shine so brightly, as it highlighted both our shadows, the sparkles of ice on the rough surface of the road and the white frost on the hedgerows. This is one of the truly magical and spiritual experiences I’ve ever experienced in my life – being with my father, just the two of us, as we pushed our bikes up Murphy’s hill at about 6.30 on Christmas morning.
On arrival at St. Mary’s Church we parked our bicycles at the usual place, beside Ned Keenan’s house. As my father chatted with other mass-goers I ran to the church vestry to get into my Mass serving outfit. Inside the vestry there was a respectful quiet excitement; with the other four boys I speculated on Santy’s generosity, although some of the boys had already seen their presents, including one who’d got the Meccano Set that he’d asked from Santa. I had made the same request, so was eager in my expectation to be treated no less favourably.
About 6.50 the Curate, Father Mc Dermott, entered the vestry in his customary breezy manner, with the aroma of Malton tobacco wafting from the furnace of his pipe, which was in full tilt. He briefly checked with us our respective roles during the three Masses and reminded us of some of our additional duties, given the morning that was in it. Then off we headed through doors of the vestry ahead of Father Mc Dermott, on to the alta r. The congregation stood to greet us, and through the left of my eye I saw my father, in his usual place at the end of the third row, on the right-hand side, holding his rosary beads.
In 1965, the call from Vatican TWO had not yet permeated the ecclesiastical psyche of the Catholic Church in Ireland. So, Mass was celebrated through the medium of Latin, with the celebrant facing the alter and his back to the congregation, the people of God. We, Mass servers, answered the prayers in Latin. Dominus Vobiscum, Et cum Spirite Tuo, Deus Caritas Est, Pater Noster… Our Father. Furthermore, microphones had not yet arrived in the little hills of Monaghan, so the Celebrant’s exhortations to Heaven as well as our responses had to be pitched at decibels that were respectful while at the same time could be heard by the congregation, all in “a language that the natives did not know” or could not understand!
While serving Mass that morning I rotated between ringing the bell, bringing the water and wine up to the priest for consecration and holding the paten while Father Mc Dermott placed the host on the tongues of the faithful, who knelt at the alter rails with their hands carefully concealed under the starched white alter cloth. This was to ensure that if the Body of Christ happened to fall as the priest was placing it on the individual tongues of the communicants, and bypassed the paten in the server’s hand, it would not fall to the floor of the Church.
After the three Masses, Father Mc Dermott opened a big box of sweets as a reward for our efforts during the year.
I cycled home in front of my father with great energy and in the expectation that Santy would grant me my wish, and that a Meccano Set would be waiting for me when I arrived home. Christmas 1965, was not to be the year I would have my wish granted – nor was it granted the following Christmas 1966, either.
The year in question, 1965, Santy brought me a Compendium of Games, which contained Snakes & Ladders, Ludo, Draughts and Tiddlywinks along with the Dandy and Beano Annuals for that year. Although somewhat disappointed, I ate the steak which my mother had fried which was the customary breakfast on Christmas mornings, and then headed out to the byre to milk the cows.
The following year, 1966, Santy was no further persuaded by the case I made in my letter for a Meccano Set. In fact, I was treated even less favourably than the previous year. On returning from the three Masses on Christmas morning 1966, I found, waiting for me, a silver torch with a bright red plastic surround on the front to keep the glass securely attached along with three Ever Ready batteries. This torch was supplemented with that year’s edition of the Hotspur for which I hadn’t the slightest damn interest.
My bitter disappointment was compounded when, after Christmas dinner, at about 4.30 that afternoon, my father politely asked me if he could have the loan of “Santy’s torch” to go out to the fields to collect the cows in the dark! I was utterly disgusted, but managed to muster up a grudging reply, and handed him my torch.
Despite my faith in Saint Nicholas, and the hope that Santy would come good on the third asking for the Meccano Set, I was bitterly disappointed with his conduct. I felt I deserved better treatment from him!
This episode merely reflected the reality in the Pepper household in the mid-sixties, where my mother and father, like many others at the time, had to stretch the pounds, shillings and pence to try and make ends meet. Sadly, I was not as aware of their daily miracles “of the loaves and fishes”, as I should have been at the time, as I was still a firm believer in the mystery of the generosity of Saint Nicholas.
I was determined that Christmas 1967 was not going to herald a further “obair in aisce” with the third attempt to make a case to Santy for my much-coveted Meccano Set. And, yes, it was third time lucky. I did get my red and green Meccano Set, complete with screws, washers, nuts, bolts, spanners and screwdrivers with instructions for assembly.
But, sadly, in the process of making sure I eventually got my wish from Santy, I encountered yet another disappointment on Christmas Eve 1967.
This is for next year’s Christmas Story.