The Christmas of 1959 in Butte Montana did not hold much hope of being merry. My father had been out of work on a labor strike since August. The thirty dollars in picket money he got each week from the union was barely enough to cover the cost of food. When Christmas arrived with the strike still holding strong, it was clear that the only gift we all would be grateful to get was a single Christmas turkey.
The cultural center of Meaderville, our neighborhood in Butte, was Saint Helena’s Catholic Church. The building itself was not much bigger than the houses that surrounded it, but it was always so packed with people that it seemed like a cathedral in my five-year-old mind. The priest, Father Gannon, was a big man both physically and spiritually. He drove a Volkswagen bug that was heavily dented because he had a hard time turning his body to check for nearby obstacles. The bug was filled to overflowing with him as the only passenger.
Having been raised in a working-class Catholic family himself, he understood that the mystique of a traditional Latin Mass was probably the only entertainment most parishioners had in their lives. He drew us into the drama by creating excuses for us to participate. Midnight Mass at Christmas was always his most ambitious production.
A nearly life size manger scene dominated the altar. The beatific gaze on the faces of all the figures was focused on an empty crib. A statue of the baby Jesus arrived during Midnight Mass on a red satin pillow. Dressed in white flour sack Angel robes, trimmed and gusseted with golden Christmas tree garland, my cousin Vicky and I respectfully processed the Savior of the World on that red satin pillow down the center aisle. When we arrived at the manger, a dissonant but fervent Hallelujah chorus rose up from the crush of parishioners as Father Gannon placed the baby Jesus in the crib while Vicky and I hovered nearby shedding glitter.
Since the ’59 Christmas was so economically bleak, Father Gannon augmented the Mass by engaging the whole congregation in a lighted candle parade around the outside of the church. Music was added. Lights around the manger got new tinfoil reflectors. Saint Helena was throwing a birthday party.
My father grew up living next door to a convent. He was the altar and errand boy of choice for both the priests and the nuns. His visits to the convent were so frequent that he claimed a casual intimacy with the nuns by seeing them so often in their underwear. This intimacy, he said, led him to the conclusion that he had seen about all the Church had to offer and none of it interested him. Outside of attending a mandatory wedding or funeral, he never set foot in any church, Catholic or otherwise. His version of Sunday worship was showing up at the back entrance to his favorite bar before the front door could legally open.
Dad dropped me, my younger sister, my mother and her sister off at the church just as the candle procession was forming. Then said he was going home to make sure Santa didn’t get stuck in the chimney. Jackie, my younger sister, reminded him that we didn’t have a chimney. My mother said that didn’t matter much because Santa would have a hard time finding the house this year anyway. Jackie looked anxious about what that could mean, but didn’t ask. Dad said he’d be back to get us when we came out of church. There wasn’t much snow on the ground and the air was warm and still.
The added elements in the Mass got rave reviews from the congregation. Father Gannon led us through, what seemed like, every verse of every known Christmas Carol. By the time the Mass ended it was well past one in the morning yet everyone left the church feeling revived. I was all distracted by compliments for my portrayal of such a well-behaved angel.
During the Mass, warm winter clouds covered the surrounding hills of sulphur yellow mine waste with a deep unblemished blanket of soft white snow. It glistened in the moonlight from a sky now open to the stars. It looked like the set of a perfect Christmas movie.
My father wasn’t there when we got out of church. My aunt, who probably loved my father more than my mother did, made excuses for his being late. We waited quietly for a few minutes until my mother shook off her denial and announced that he’d probably fallen asleep and wasn’t coming. “So”, she said, “It’s a beautiful night. We can walk.”
We made the first tracks through that new fallen snow. We stopped periodically while Jackie made snow angels. As we walked, my mother and aunt told us about the Italian version of Santa, a kindly old woman called “La Befana”. Her legend says that on January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany, her own child died. So now she goes out every year looking for the Christ child to give him the gifts that would have gone to her son. Every year she has no luck in finding the Christ child so she leaves the gifts for all the children of the world. Each of the seven children in my mother’s family got a piece of fruit as their gift from “La Befana”. In prosperous years, this was an orange. Butte Montana in the 1920’s was weeks away from the nearest citrus grove. An orange was candied gold.
Between stories, we sang Christmas Carols that chimed against the crystalline air. In the shared experience of a pristine landscape, bathed in the starlight of a dawning Christmas morning, we became extensions of each other and the universe. My aunt, who never went beyond a fifth-grade education, looked at my sister and me and said, “This night will never leave you. A good memory is a glimpse of everlasting life.” And the years have proven her right. Whenever I imagine Heaven, it’s a lot like that Christmas night.