CHRISTMAS 1966

I had only been to that big church twice before; once was two weeks before Christmas and the next was the week before Christmas. Our Lady of the Assumption Church in the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx was well outside my neighborhood, outside my own parish of St. Lucy’s. But I had been asked by my high school Glee Club director to consider lending my voice to his church choir for their special Midnight Mass program. I was flattered and I felt very special. I readily agreed when he proposed the idea to me shortly after returning from Thanksgiving break.

I was a member in good standing of the Mount St. Michael Academy Glee Club. I was fifteen years old and in the eleventh grade; not old enough to drive, but I already had years and years of experience navigating the borough of the Bronx by both bus and train. I took a city bus, then the subway and then another bus to high school every morning and I reversed the route each afternoon. I could most certainly find my way to the big church between the Bruckner Expressway and Westchester Avenue. Besides, Mr. G, as we called our teacher, had given me directions. Either I was the only one at school he asked to sing in his special choir, or I was the only one to accept his invitation: when I arrived for that first of two mid-week rehearsals, I was the only student there. All the other choir members were adults from the local parish, I presume. While they welcomed me to their ranks, it still felt very odd. The only outsider, the only kid.

The rehearsal promptly began in earnest. Mr. G played the organ and conducted us in our parts. The Midnight Mass program was to be a spectacular event, he promised. And as became quickly evident to me, the songs and arrangements he chose for us as well as his considerable talent in playing the multi-keyboarded church organ all made for a more than wonderful sound. That sound was made many times more so with the enhancing echo of the cavernous church below the choir loft. I couldn’t help but feel my grin stretching my face as I sang the joyous songs of Christmas. The following week, our final rehearsal before the big night, was more of the same, only better. The music flowed easier now. The sounds grew stronger, the harmony sweeter. It was a goose bump thrill to sing with such practiced voices!

And then it was Christmas Eve. In those days, the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass still took place at midnight and not, as today, after sundown. And so I arrived at the church as requested at 10 P.M. Christmas Eve. Inside the church itself was eye-popping in its decoration. Live evergreens filled the sanctuary space all around the altar and each and every pew end down the center aisle was hung with a fresh wreath of ground pine and tied with a bright red bow. At the altar rail were dozens and dozens of pots of poinsettias placed so closely together as to appear as a field of the flowers. Colored lights adorned the large manger scene that was built off to the left side of the sanctuary. The stained glass windows took on a solemn look as the outside darkness could not light the scenes they depicted. Instead, the look of black glass lit from the inside by a single candle placed on each sill repeated itself up and down both sides of the outer walls.

When Mass began, a great procession of altar boys all in long red cassocks with short, puffy-sleeved white surpluses announced the entrance of the priests. All of the parish’s priests were there for this, the biggest and most well attended event on the church calendar. And as they entered we sang from the loft, our voices mixed with the full organ chords and floating above and around the hundreds of people packed into every available space below us. A more perfect picture and sound could never be!

By 2:00 A.M. it was over. The prayers, the music, the children, the sounds, the flowers, the lights, the excitement. It was early, early Christmas morning and our Midnight Mass did its job. It sent people home with a true sense of love, happiness, hope and wonder. I took off my choir robe and grabbed my coat. Mr. G stopped me to wish me a Merry Christmas and offered me a ride home in his ever-present Volkswagen beetle. But it was Christmas and I knew he had little ones at home and I didn’t want to hold up his plans by taking him out of his way.

And so there I was. I was out on the nearby street at 2:30 in the morning waiting for a bus. The busses would run all night, I was told, and so I waited. It was cold, I remember that. And yes, it was snowing gently as it had been all day and all night. And here I was for the first Christmas I could ever remember being totally all alone. The street was empty and quiet. The street lights were as bright as daylight, it seemed, but it was the middle of the night. I didn’t feel sad, really, but I remember feeling like this was a moment in my life that I would think of as long as I lived.

And when the bus finally came which was to take me within a short walk from home, the thing I remember most is the scene I found on the bus. I sat with my head leaning on the glass. The dark outside and the over bright fluorescent interior of the city bus made the windows a mirror. I saw myself reflected there and opposite me and up a few rows I saw a middle aged woman dressed in the white of a hospital worker sitting with a bundle on her lap. And towards the back an old man was sleeping, his coat half buttoned. And as the bus bounced along and made its loud start and stop hisses and roars I kept reminding myself that this was a Christmas I wouldn’t forget. And as it happened, that Christmas morning spent with three strangers on a bus devoid of any holiday color or context was the only Christmas I would ever spend alone and away from my family.
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