There are few pieces of music more solemn, joyous, hopeful and emotional than Christmas carols. We wait all year to hear these beautiful hymns and are touched by the memories they evoke. Christmas by its very nature is a time for remembrances and no matter what we are doing, however busy we might be, when the tune of that one special carol is heard, we are immediately transported back in time.
My family made the trek to Midnight Mass for many years, until the next generation came along and it was too late for little ones to be up. Then, we turned the clock back a bit with our Christmas celebrating and began attending the children’s early evening masses. Between my family and my sister’s and brothers,’ we took turns hosting Christmas Eve celebrations and whoever’s home we were at, we attended their parish’s service, en masse. With nine little ones and their parents, aunts, uncles and the matriarch of the family, we filled a couple of rows at church.
You could feel the excitement within the poinsettia and Christmas-treed hall of worship. Heavy coats were slipped off and little girls in velvet dresses, white leotards and matching hair ribbons, eight of them ours, tried their best to sit still, a tough request for any child on Christmas Eve. The little boys looked angelic and my little blonde-haired one stood in the midst of his sea of sisters and cousins. Before the mass began, hymn sheets were passed out, the organ was fired up or, if we were at a folk mass, the guitar strings were tuned and we all sang carols in anticipation of the imminent birth.
My sister Mary Anne and I had a little ritual of our own. When we were once those little girls, dressed up at Christmastime, my sister whispered to me in church, asking what I had wrapped for her under our tree. She said that if I told her, she’d tell me. I was the younger one who adored and trusted my older sister. I told her. But she wouldn’t tell me. I must have been disappointed, upset, I may have even cried, but I didn’t make the same mistake again. Every year she’d ask me the same thing, and every year I turned her down. At some point it became a running joke between us. A Christmas Eve didn’t go by without the words, “If you tell me . . . ” and then we’d laugh.One particular Christmas Eve, we were at mass at our local university, a place where Mary Anne’s family and mine often attended. It was a hall of study during school days, a church on Sundays. Folding steel chairs clattered as people filed into rows that quickly became skewed, some chairs pushed forward, others back creating a kind of zigzag effect. Music students with their instruments: guitars, violins and a cello, set up in a corner near the front, where they could easily be seen. We breathed in the fresh pine boughs that lay all around a large handcrafted manger, its straw-filled crib empty, in wait. We admired the perfect staging of red poinsettias, arranged in tiers in front of the makeshift altar. The congregation settled in.
With my sister and her family beside mine, I leaned forward, in front of a few kids, and mouthed the words, “I’ll tell you . . .” She smiled, shook her head and picked up the hymn book. We all stood to sing. I glanced across at my sister again, and her sweet face was lifted in song, the freckles that lay sprinkled across her nose, reminding me of our childhood days. She sang loudly and beautifully,
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive, Israel . . .”
A hush settled in. The carol begins so fervently, the melody, sombre, almost haunting.
“that mourns in lonely exile, here,
until the son of God appear . . .”
I joined my sister in song, and marvelled at our six children, strung between us in an unbreakable chain of love.
We lost our Mary Anne suddenly, at far too young an age. She wasn’t here to see her daughters grow into women or hold five grandchildren in her arms. On the first Christmas Eve without her, we tried to continue in the only way any of us had known. Our families gathered together, we shared gifts and then readied for Midnight Mass. (The children’s mass would have been far too painful.) With broken hearts and shattered lives, we climbed into cars on that cold and icy night.
Lights were dim in the church; the pungent aroma of incense and pine slicing through our dark world. I had worked at a fundraiser that morning and afternoon and I was exhausted. We sat in a pew near the back of the church. On a massive Christmas tree that stood beside the altar there hung several wooden crosses, each one hand-painted with the name of a parishioner who had passed away within the last year. I knew Mary Anne’s name was on one. Suddenly I was overcome with fatigue and closed my eyes, sinking into that fast, deep sleep that would only last a minute or two. When I opened them again, candles flickered. I blinked hard a few times then looked across at my mother and my sister’s children, their sad faces partially covered in shadow but also lit with candlelight.
Music began. I couldn’t sing. No one in our pew was singing. And then the next carol:
“Oh come thou dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits of thine Advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadow put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! . . .”
Could we? How? All of our lives had been irreparably changed, sorrow overwhelming.
I glanced at my nieces. In the shrouded light I saw my sister in one of her daughter’s eyes, her smile curling around another’s lips. My mother looked forlorn. She gave Mary Anne to us, never imagining she’d be taken away in her own lifetime. I sucked in air, steadied my shaking hands and picked up the hymn book.
“Rejoice, Rejoice Emmanuel,
Shall come to thee o Israel . . .”
With quivering lips I mouthed the words of the song. Then I sang them. Not as loud as I once did but still with the hope and joy this carol exhorts.
My sister will always be with us. I still see her so often, in the giggles of her granddaughters, the kindnesses of her daughters, the wit of our mother. And when Christmastime rolls around, I know there will be carols that I will sing through my tears, tears full of love, joy at having had her in my life, thankfulness that somehow we are able to “close the path to misery” as the hymn teaches.
Our Christmas Eves have changed. Families have grown and spread out. But every single one of us carries the memories of those days when we were all strung together in that line of love, singing, rejoicing, welcoming Christmas and the hope and joy it brings.
Foley is a freelance writer living in Kitchener, Ont., who recently moved back to her homeland after 13 years in the U.S., Caribbean and the U.K. She has been fortunate to travel and reside in many parts of Europe and North America and much of her writing is inspired by these experiences.