As I look forward to hearing and singing the music of the Christmas season I think back to the break-neck pace we kept in the family at this time of year when I was a kid.
This probably would have been the Sunday for our church’s candlelight service, or perhaps the 20th, and it was always a very full day. It would begin with the regular morning service and then Mom, the church organist for thirty-one years, would round up both the junior and senior choirs for an afternoon outing.
We went to two nursing homes to sing, both in the main living-rooms and at the bed-sides of anyone who couldn’t make it to the larger gathering. This usually frightened me as a youngster (most were older and in much rougher shape than my grandparents) but this was a valuable lesson and, in fact, I grew to have quite an affinity with the older subscribers along my paper route during my teens. I remember Mom would spend an evening a few days before our outing packing little plastic bags with Christmas-coloured hard candies, tied with a festive ribbon, for us to hand out to the seniors.
It would nearly be dusk when we got home for a light supper and then set off for the candlelight service. It was a very pretty little church and on this night it was always amazing with, I swear, more candles per square metre than any other church would have considered safe, not to mention the fire marshal. The only electric lighting used was over my mother on the organ (and maybe the choir, too, but most couldn’t read music so lighting wasn’t a priority.)
The church would be very warm, thanks to a boiler furnace and associated radiators which pinged, hissed and banged at times of their choosing which rarely matched the beat of the music. There was more than the usual amount of body heat, too, with regular attendees out-numbered by Christmas and Easter seasonal devotees.
The music was pretty good, all things considered, as Mom always had at least one and sometimes two excellent soprano soloists in the choir – and Mom had a very good two-manual Casavant Frères pipe organ to work with. (I’ve been a big fan of pipe organs ever since.) Mom had taken over as organist – she a piano teacher, mind you, not an organist – from Bob Anderson. There was a character! I suppose he would have been in his seventies when I first was old enough to remember him but he and his wife Effie lasted well into their eighties. Bob had a booming baritone voice which could be heard all over the church during the singing of an old hymn. When I was young enough to be getting the “Say thank you” advice he would reach into his suit pocket and haul out a selection of wrapped candies. He and Effie were immigrants from Scotland and their brogue was very thick. As I grew up I mastered pretty good imitations of both of them.
Valleyfield United was a small church in a mostly French-speaking town so I can only remember two great preachers since it tended to attract clergy either just starting out, relatively speaking, or those due to, or past due, retire. Richard and Harold were my favourites. Richard was there when I was in the first few grades of school while Harold managed to keep me interested in the church through my high school years. Otherwise, we cycled through quite an assortment of clergy who probably sped up the rapid decline in church attendance in those days.
The church is now being used as a local museum. Newspaper reports I’ve read about it state that all the beautiful stained glass memorial windows have been maintained. They really are spectacular having been installed gradually over the long life of the congregation.
After the service we would usually drive a block or two out of our way so that we could pass the Coca-Cola bottling plant where a more secular version of Christmas was on display. In a large picture window, where the assembly line would normally be in view, sat a twice-life-sized mechanical Santa Claus in a setting that probably came from the company’s earliest magazine ads. One of his low-tech arms would go up as a voice, through loud-speakers, boomed, “Ho ho ho!” This was a traffic stopper, particularly at night with lots of twinkling lights adding to the atmosphere.
My grandmother, who would be part of this drive home a few nights later on Christmas Eve, got a big kick out of Santa which to kids like us, accustomed to a rather staid grandmother, made us laugh all the harder.