We're up in Cape Cod this Christmas and, although there is no snow around, everyone has been having a good time. Around here, presents are opened on Christmas Eve, so we had fun opening last night -- all except for Xan, who waited until this morning after Santa had delivered. (We've then been opening throughout the day, as he just got overwhelmed with items. He still has two more to open, I think.)
Christmas Eve, however, is usually punctuated by Angela and me -- and now Xan -- accompanying her grandparents to church. A word here: I am now a Unitarian-Universalist, although I have admittedly been lax at getting to services every Sunday; Angela has generally inherited her father's (dis-)taste for anything church-related. In general, however, this is something that Nana in particular loves and we feel it's the best for everyone to go to church, even if it means delaying the Christmas Eve Meal for some time.
I should also say that I happen to love Christmas Eve services. This is, after all, the happiest day in the Christian calendar with no strings attached. If I am ever wistful for Christmas, I think of the services from back home in Lima which, for me, were always a great sign of Christmas, even though it was usualy hot and outside in the summer evening air (which I never got used to for the holidays). My church in Lima does a candlelight service with lots of Christmas carols (and for many years I was forced into the choir as a guy who could sing), so for me Christmas always solidifies with a singing on "Silent Night" as the lights go out and the candles turn on -- but in my world, it features three verses in English and one each in the original German and in Spanish. For me, that's magic.
Two years ago when we were last on the Cape for the holidays, we went to what was billed as a "Birthday Party for Jesus." This turned out to be amazingly wonderful, even for the sub-one-year-old that we had at the time: lots of Christmas carols, a direct rendering of the Christmas story and afterwards a quick round of "Happy Birthday to You" with balloons and cake in the parish hall. Brief, to the point and entirely on a kid's level. It was, to use a word, heavenly. I was actually looking forward to the service this year, gleefully expecting cake.
In the interim, however, the former pastor (who actually married us) has been moved elsewhere and a new pastor -- who we refer to as "Reverend Doctor" since the "Dr." was prominently on display when we attended a memorial service only a month or so ago -- has been installed. We had not been to a regular church service at this church for quite some time.
Certainly, I would not have expected that our venture would be worth recoutning. And yet, here I am
For starters, we walk into the main hall of the church to the musicians practicing, since we're a little early. There is a boy playing trumpet and a woman playing piano. They appear to be playing similar tunes, but are at an interval that is dissonant. "Is the trumpet in a different key?" I turn to ask Angela. "Maybe," she says, "since I don't think piano and trumpet are in the same key. Surely the pianist has figured this out." Indeed, we see the two chatting and they wander off as everyone else is wandering in. Xan picks a row for us to sit in and Nana and we two are happily esconced. There is even a little boy who comes to try to make friends with Xan.
At some point before the service begins, we notice a rather large change to the church: there are now two rather large screens hanging around the cross. Oddly, this seems incongruous to me in this otherwise fiarly normally adorned church and I realize that they have gone high-tech in a way, that the lyrics will be projected. I look down at my program and see the lyrics have also been printed in full here. Why, I think, do we have both? Isn't this a waste of paper?
The service begins and the first thing we realize is that the pianist and the trumpeter clearly have not been talking about how to fix their problem because it's still there. They are still dissonant. This grates on a number of my nerves. Xan, however, is thrilled to pieces and fascinated by the music. It appears that he knows something of "Jingle Bells" and tries in a few places to sing it while he is in my arms.
We quickly fall into "Angels We Have Heard On High." This features the chorus that goes "Glooooooooria, in excelsis deo." Xan perks up with a big smile: "Fire engine!" Indeed, each time the church sings the "Glooooooooria," it sounds like a siren and he starts happily singing along, "Fiiire engiiiine! Wooooo!"
As is to be expected. the lyrics come up on the aforementioned screens. As is to be expected, said lyrics are correctly rendered, sometimes.
There is a skit in the middle of the service, impassionately performed by several of the congregation's kids, where each letter in "Christmas" is noted, with some notation as to how a word beginning with that letter pertains to Christmas (such as "T is for tequila, which you undoubtedly could use right about now"). Before this begins, however, the screen features a lone "C" while the pastor explains what is about to occur. A long animated bell continues to ring on the corner of the screen. Xan lights up, happily yells: "Jingle bells!" The pastor, who has not said anything about what anybody else's kid has done, calls attention to this. Xan then proceeds to repeat each letter as a kid comes forward with a large letter. (As is perhaps to be expected, at one point the word in front of us reads "CHRI2TMAS.")
The Biblical passage that the pastor reads comes from a completely different translation than what appears on screen.
The trumpet and piano still are not together as the carols continue.
The kids are brought up for a small children's sermon, which involves him going on about war. The one cool thing that happens at this service is when he gives the kids bells made from spent cartidges made from the metalic detritus of war in Indochina. Xan has gone up with the rest ofthe kids but, upon seeing a mother with a smaller child in her arms, comes back to drag Angela up with him, thus inducting her into the Dadak tradition of being forced against their will to the front of the church (which apparently happened to her father all the time as he would arrive late to Christmas pageants when only the front row was left).
At some point during this, Nana turns to me and points out a 60-something-year-old man sitting with the kids. "That's Joseph," she says to me. I later find out from Angela's mother that indeed this man played Joseph in aliving nativity scene in front of the church; Mary was played by a 14-year-old. Yeesh.
The kids come back with the bells and I realize that my kid finally got his jingle bell -- and that he won't be the only one making noise for the rest of the service.
This being a kids-oriented service, the pastor then offers a regular sermon where I believe he discusses homeless people in three different cities. At this point, however, Xan gets antsy and forces each of his parents out into the vestibule for a while. (In my time away, we got to look at both the traffic and the parking lot.) I realize by this point that, this being the happiest day of the year, the pastor hasn't smiled once.
For the last hymn, the pastor introduces a new song with a calypso beat. (Remember, we're in Massachusetts, where spicy often means black pepper.) The piano and trumpet are still nopt coordinated, no one else appears to know the tune, the lyrics provided on the screen are half grammtically correct and and half rendered in grammatically-incorrect-yet-possibly-Caribbean-patois-maybe? style, Xan is still happily singing about fire engines on one side and Nana, who is lovely but completely tone-deaf, is singing on the other.
The service ends. We do not stay for cake.
I know Christmas Eve services. Later, I will tell Angela that this was by far one of the worst I have been to, on many levels. Before then, however, we turn to Nana in the car: "How did you like the service?"
"Wasn't it lovely?" Nana said genuinely. "I just love seeing all the kids around. And you."
And that, kids, is what the holidays are all about. Merry Christmas.