BURNING THE CHRISTMAS CROSS

Aw shucks, ’tis the season to be both jolly and nostalgic so let’s go back to 1944 and attend a good old fashioned carol service in which my father, the minister, managed to burn the Christmas cross.  I present this (with my own permission) as an extract from my own memoirs,   Always an Updraft   Penumbra Press, 2005). 

I am seventeen. It is another Christmas and the carol service is about to begin. The interior of old Bethany United Church [Almonte, Ont.] is lit only by coloured tree lights and the congregation is expectantly in place. The vestibule inside the front door is in total darkness but is far from empty. It is jam-packed with members of the choir, all of us wearing long black gowns, and the women wearing flat mortarboard caps, each cap with a tassel dangling to one side. At the moment we are all catching our breath, because there is no interior passage from the choir room to the vestibule so we have all skittered here through the snow and the freezing cold, looking like great grounded crows. If there is a latecomer to the congregation he or she will have to wait, or use a side door, because the processional is about to begin.

A match flares in the darkness and then other small flares break away from it and multiply among themselves. Each of us is carrying a candle seated in a little wooden block, and as the tiny igniting flames spread among us the whole vestibule lights up. Now we look like members of the Inquisition preparing for an auto-da-fé.

A soprano opens the door to the nave and waves a candle up and down. Hector, the organist, must be watching in his rear-view mirror, because he changes gears in mid-chord, opens the throttles, and soars into the processional. We wait for our cue then carol forth. “O Come All Ye Faithful” is almost too big for the vestibule.

We enter the nave one at a time, our hymn books open in our left hands, our flickering candles in our right hands, and proceed in single file down the right-hand aisle. Our thrifty Scottish predecessors didn’t build a centre aisle.  The sopranos go first, followed by the altos, then the tenors, and we basses bring up the rear, trailed by Dad in his full clerical regalia—gown, dickie, tabs, dog collar, and the handsome white satin academic hood with the purple border….

The old church is austerely beautiful. Its Presbyterian roots go way back into the mid-1800s. At the front, the choir loft rises up behind the central pulpit and is in turn backed by the soaring pipe organ. Organist Hector Dalrymple has built great arches that tower over the front of the choir loft. He has clothed these arches in evergreen boughs and impregnated the boughs with Christmas tree lights. There is the scent of balsam, the twinkle of coloured lights, the flicker of candle flames, the singing of the choir and the congregation, and over it all the triumphant music from the big organ, whose pipes line the entire back wall of the choir loft. It is fitting that the keyboard is at the base of the pipes and the organist is not cowering in a pit but sits high on his bench for all to see, because this is his evening and he knows it. Hector pulls out a few more stops.

The processional passes across the front of the church, below the pulpit and past the communion table. At the table we each in turn dispose of our candles. I know that Dad has been labouring in the basement armed with saw, hammer, nails, two-by-fours, tin, and shears. Now the product of his labour is here for all to see. A great wooden cross stands four-square on the communion table. Its entire main stem and its outreaching arms are lined with holders made of tin. Dad also made the little wooden blocks that carry our candles, and we now find that those blocks fit neatly onto the holders. By the time we have all passed by on our way to the choir loft the plain wooden cross has been transformed by candle flames into a symbol of everlasting life and hope.

A few overhead lights are now turned on so that everybody, including members of the congregation, can see their hymn books. Dad voices the Call to Worship and Hector holds a gentle chord for a moment while we all strike our mental tuning forks. Then, softly, we sing “Again As Evening’s Shadow Falls.”

I love this hymn, with the deep dark and the quiet snow outside, the soft light and the warmth inside, just a little rustle from the congregation, and the big organ all muted down, its pipes fluting softly overhead. This evening, as soon as that one bit of ritual is completed, Dad throws away the regular Order of Service. We warm up the congregational voice with “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” then carol on into “The First Noel.” The choir unleashes a couple of anthems. Some teenagers read portions of the Christmas story. I am happy to be marooned up in the back row of the choir loft where I can’t get tagged for any of that. But I do hope the power stays on.

If there’s a hydro break tonight, I’m in trouble. The power has been known to fail during a winter service, and when the break strikes in the middle of a hymn it is highly diverting. The big organ blows along until it exhausts all the air in its bellows, then dies with a great wailing moan that sinks down and down and out. The death of the organ makes for a memorable moment, because the choir and the congregation also wind down to a halt, usually with two or three voices bravely attempting to carry on before being overwhelmed by the embarrassment of isolation. When a hydro failure occurs it’s my job to nip through a little door, panelled into the woodwork, that leads into the back of the organ where a long wooden handle protrudes from the bowels of the huge instrument. I seize that handle and laboriously pump it up and down. After about the third stroke the organ returns to life, and I keep it going. My willingness to perform this duty may be the reason I am tolerated in the bass section.

It occurs to me now that I had better offer a little private prayer on behalf of Ontario Hydro. A carol service could be a long hard pump.

I am thinking of that pump handle when I am distracted by the advent of the Long Prayer. This being a carol service, we are saved, for tonight, from the Sermon, but there is no rescue from the Long Prayer, which is a mini-sermon disguised as a prayer. I don’t think this subterfuge is fair, but I can’t blame it on Dad, because all his ministerial friends indulge in it. Even the bachelor clergyman from Carleton Place, who reminds me of Raymond Massey and who tells hilarious jokes at the dinner table, goes all solemn and long-winded when he launches into the Long Prayer. I have a problem, because I start listening for all the things the preacher is telling God that God already knows, or that He probably doesn’t want to know. My mind then drops information into compartments—information for Him, for Us, for Him—weighing them up on imaginary scales. When the scales begin not only to tilt but to bend on the Us side I sometimes begin to laugh, and it’s not a good idea for the minister’s son, sitting high up on the exposed upper rank of the choir loft, to burst into laughter. So I smother it. Then I begin to smother me, and the damned suppressed laughter takes on unreasonable proportions. I’m sure I’m turning purple and am probably going to expire where I sit and Mother will never know I died of good manners. I laughed right out loud once in the middle of a sermon because I was daydreaming and had thought of something amusing. I managed to turn the laugh into a snort and then converted that into a bout of coughing until an alto sent back a cough drop.

Right now it’s not the Long Prayer that has distracted me so much as the burning cross. I stare in fascination. The candles are burning, of course. That’s the whole idea. But some of them have guttered very low. In fact, some of them have ignited the wooden blocks in which they are embedded. As the Long Prayer drones on I realize that the cross itself is igniting. Very interesting.

I nudge my companions awake and the bass section sits and ponders the implications of the scene below. I wonder that Dad can’t see it. Perhaps he has his eyes closed, or fixed on the heavens. It’s right under his nose, why can he not smell it! He has a nose like a beagle. If I were to light a cigarette within ten blocks of the house he would smell it instantly. I wonder if I could get him on the back of the head with a spitball, but figure I don’t have a clear shot through Hector’s decorative arches.

The flames are well established on the upright, and the bass section decides that if an elder doesn’t come to the rescue by the time the arms catch fire we will have to take action. We are praying for an elder.

I have seen an elder step into the breach before now. One Sunday morning a lady of unsound mind came running down the aisle in the middle of Dad’s sermon. She was loudly damning the preacher and all the other sinners and exhorting the saved to rally. An elder overtook her just as she reached the front and guided her off through a side exit without even breaking stride. Dad never dropped a metaphor. And one memorable morning an aged Pillar of the Church who always sat in a front pew went to sleep during the sermon. His hearing aid fell out of his ear and dropped down beside the large microphone that was clipped to his vest. The little machine cycled itself into instant feedback and shrieked and yowled at full volume while Dad tried to ignore both the sleeper and the sound. An elder came hotfooting down the aisle that time as well. I have thought of him ever after as a compassionate man. He did not awaken the sleeper, he merely switched off the hearing aid.

But now, alas, we are in the middle of the Long Prayer and the cross is burning and the elders are all being devout. Their heads are bowed and their eyes are shut. May the Dear Lord send us one heretical elder before the bass section shouts “Fire!” in unison and awakens an entire congregation.

An elder comes.

At the sound of his footsteps heads are raised cautiously and eyes crack open, but the prayer goes on. This elder walks with a slightly rolling gait that could be mistaken for a sailor’s walk but comes from years of following a plough along the furrows. Trust a farmer to know when it’s time to abandon the niceties and get on with the action. He picks that big cross up by its heavy wooden base and holds it out at arm’s length as though it were made of balsa wood. He marches away along a transept aisle and the blood of my Scottish ancestors stirs within me. The fiery cross, sanctified at the altar, is now being carried out into the night! Soon the clansmen will pour from the hills. Gaelic war cries will make the welkin ring. “A Bellendaine!” yells a ghostly Scott somewhere in my bloodstream. “Castle Fulis na theine!” answers an ancient Munro, and down deep in my ancestral depths a towering black-haired border thane bellows, “A Douglas, a Douglas!” and rides off to war. A door is thrown open and the runner with the fiery cross exits into the night.

The atmosphere, the spectacle, my ancestral blood, and the incongruity have done me in. One carol service has just gone up in smoke.  As I leave the church I see the charred remains of the fiery cross upside down in a snowdrift about twenty feet from the nearest sign of footsteps. That muscular elder must have cupped his hands and given a mighty heave as though he were tossing the caber. Any passing Catholic will have gone home wondering what new heresy the Protestants were practising tonight.  *

* Always an Updraft, (Penumbra Press, 2005) Copyright© Munroe Scott, excerpt from Chapter 5

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About Munroe Scott

Munroe Scott is a veteran of the freelance writing world.
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8 Responses to BURNING THE CHRISTMAS CROSS

  1. grettz says:

    Absolutely delightful, Munroe! Always, always, always, an updraft. And dangerously so when near exposed flame!

  2. TheAlektera says:

    One of my favourite passages. Thank you Munroe!

  3. Edward Smith says:

    Could this lead to something more expansive? Well, of course it is taken FROM something more expansive, but I’m thinking of a volume on some of Canada’s more peculiar rituals involving fire. Chapters could include the communal conflagration of outhouses in the West, the always popular burning of schoolhouses (even if only in miniature) on the 24th of May, the destruction by fires “of unknown origin” of heritage landmarks to be replaced by condo towers, and of course the unsettling Unitarian burning of question marks on the front lawns of doctrinaire church goers.

    In any event, your Christmas nostalgia should give Tiny Tim a run for his money this festive season – God bless us every one!

    • Munroe Scott says:

      That Unitarian reference is a new one on me. Maybe the Greeting Card business might do something with the picture of a charred cross upside down in a drift? Seems that these days anything goes.

  4. Allison Gutteridge says:

    Hi Munroe: What a fabulous posting . . . your words brought the event to life for me. I could see and hear what was going on . . . beautiful prose. Thank you.

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