Curate’s Christmas in Wales...
Christmas came round again in Llandwlldu, but this time it was different. I was now a priest, having made the Michaelmas journey to St. Illtud’s Cathedral and felt the strong, gnarly hands of the bishop upon my diaconal head. Out afterwards into the dark Pembrokeshire night to clutch the hands of old ladies eager to touch the newly-priested and feel the ontological changes in my cold palms. No great celebration in the parish though, for Father was ill with rasping lungs and not strong enough to leave his bed that day.
The village was still dark, with the small tree outside the sweetshop shedding a sad light on the High Street. Shops were shut now, for it was another Christmas Eve, and the people had gone home to eat heartily and change into Sunday best for church or chapel. No sound could be heard except for the piano of the King’s Arms and the amorous whispers of a young couple under the awning of Thomas’ funeral parlour. I was running back to the curates’ house for a light supper. Cold ham, cheese and a bottle of brown ale would be shared by the three of us before settling down before the freshly-lit fire – waiting for the first mass of Yule. We would talk of masses past and sermons preached like old salts in a shipyard inn. Yes, we had gone there and said that, but what matter now?
“Remember Palm Sunday Evensong?” He asked, and we looked at Enoch with eyes lit by the crackling fire. None of us did, for that day we had been the guests of the Big House, and were driven back to church in a pony and trap in no state for prayer. Father had merely grunted and fingered his red-piped cassock cuffs in resignation. “I think I preached” said Enoch, but he hadn’t. He couldn’t have.
The hours passed as the evening grew darker still as clouds rose over the high crags of the mountains and scudded over the innocent moon. Then it was time to pull on the cassocks that had been warming in the kitchen and take turns in the icy bathroom to splash water on our sleepy faces. It was but a short walk to the church along cobbled lanes wet with moss and old drains. Past the Jones’ house with its candle burning in the window. Old Jones had died that year, but Mrs. Jones hadn’t noticed until Father had called.
The wind blew even colder as we fumbled our way through the lych-gate and into the dark porch, past the cold stare of Old John the verger, lighting lamps with a polished brass taper and cursing the draught through gapped teeth. An untrimmed wick spat in the gloom, and so did he. People began to drift in from the night, wrapped in dark overcoats and smelling of aniseed, roast beef and red wine. A child here and there, proudly yawning at such a grown-up hour, fidgeted and yawned again. The choir men smoked behind their vestry door, the women preened, shuffled music and combed the hair of the trebles for the third time. Candles were lit behind the altar, and Father vested first, before we were allowed into the sacristy at all. Celebrant and preacher every Christmas Eve, he stood watching until every amiss, alb, girdle and stole was in place – and fingered his maniple with a glower when Enoch got it back to front. Adeste fideles!
After mass we tripped home, thankful that Archdeacon Pugh was ill that year and unable to berate us after worship. No stars to guide us, and the fire had gone out. We shivered as we sipped our gin and toasted the season, rebelliously removing our collars. There was time for another too, for the six o’clock mass was no more, the sole communicant having run away with a brush salesman after the death of her ailing mother up the valley.
Christmas lunch was at the loud invitation of Mrs. Goronwy Prosser, who had been a missionary in Swaziland before marrying the quiet postmaster. We sat in cassocked silence in the dining room under the pious gaze of portraits of famous clergy and in the nervous eyes of the husband. She carried in tray after silver tray, her ample bosom heaving like the Irish Sea in winter. The table groaned with meat and drink, and so did we at the prospect of another goose. It came with extra potatoes too, and the thirty-nine buttons all protested quietly. Came the port, and even the wall of clergy blurred with seasonal sentiment. We slept soundly that night and dreamed of Lent.
apologies to Dylan Thomas.
Church of England