C E L E B R A T I O N
In our world, nothing compared
with Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
God’s power surging through the congregation,
from altarboys in our stiff collars and big red bows,
to the solid men of the parish in their finest array:
Blue suits, gold wrist watches, crisp white shirts.
The women perfumed and girdled, lipsticked
and bejeweled. Enough incense
in the air to do the Wise Men proud.
The procession wound through the church,
organ honking, voices lifted in the special
Christmas sense of the slate wiped clean
and the universe beginning anew.
The tree in the house lit with fat colored bulbs
that looked good enough to eat. The old suitcase
full of fragile decorations, buried treasure found
every year on Christmas Eve and set free again.
The baby Jesus alive and well! Herod thwarted!
This called for presents. Toys, games, maybe
a watch or a knife. Along with Jesus came the whole
cast of Yuletide characters—Santa, Rudolph,
the Chipmunks, Bing Crosby, Frosty, Scrooge.
I’m surprised the Easter Bunny didn’t crash
the event. My father put out apple pie
and a glass of milk for Sanny, the remaining traces
of which on Christmas morning were proof enough
for me and my brother Jimmy of the entire
supernatural infrastructure of Bronx Irish culture.
But it was the party after Midnight Mass
that I remember most. Relatives and neighbors
would pour into our apartment for an all-nighter.
My mother would get the percolator going,
and start making breakfast for half the parish.
Bacon, eggs, blood pudding, plates of fresh rolls
with poppy seeds bought that day
in the Treat Bakery on Tremont Avenue.
Eating breakfast at two in the morning!
This was a miracle for a ten-year-old boy.
Bottles of Seagram’s and Canadian Club
stood at attention on the kitchen table,
silver ice bucket ringed with penguins
awaiting duty beside them. Ladies smoking
and gossiping. Glasses clinking. Laughter
throughout the house. The smell of pine,
the delicious aroma of sizzling bacon,
all welcoming Jesus back for another year.
Then the music and singing would start up,
my father on the banjo, P. J. Conway on the box.
The Stack of Barley, The Lakes of Sligo,
medleys of marches, waltzes, and polkas.
Theresa McNally, from my mother’s own town
in Galway, would sing “Galway Bay.” Steps would
be danced, jokes told, more drinks mixed and gulped.
I would go to bed so filled with the spirit
it seemed impossible to believe that life could
ever return to normal. Lying there exhausted,
but anxious to sneak down the hall at the earliest
opportunity and tear open the tantalizing packages,
I believed in everything: Jesus our Lord, Santa
our magic benefactor, my parents the immortal source
of the ongoing celebration that could never end.
[from Boy Drinkers, Hanging Loose Press, 2007]
P.J. Conway, my father Paddy Winch, and Brian Keenan in 1958. P.J. and my father performed locally in NY as "The Two Pats." If they had a drummer for any particular gig, it would either be me, my brother Jesse, or P.J.'s nephew Brian Keenan, who immigrated from England in the '50s. Brian went on to become the drummer for The Chambers Brothers, who were popular in the '60s and later. He died pretty young, and lived pretty hard, as I recall. I am the steward of P.J.'s Walters D/C# accordion and my father's Vega tenor banjo, seen in this photo. I used to have one of those green plaid tuxedo jackets, too, but it has vanished.
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(ed note: This post originally appeared on December 23, 2010)