A Christmas StoryBy
The following was not written by me, nor is it set in Venice; it was written by a friend whose gifts far outstrip the recognition they have received. And because this small but perfect jewel has become part of my own personal Christmas tradition, I am giving it to you here. Happy Holidays to all.
by George S. Nammack
It was after 10 o’clock on Christmas Eve and I was 12 and wearing my first long trousers. I never had been permitted to attend midnight mass, but I knew that 10:30 was the latest one could be sure of seating at St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Far Rockaway [NY]. After that, you hurried across the dark schoolyard to claim a folding seat in the Lyceum, actually the school’s auditorium, where you would participate in what was perceived to be a somehow second-cabin rite known as The Overflow Mass.
Mother had made her traditional pronouncement that those who chose to go to midnight services were in a state of less rectitude and grace than were those clear-eyed parishioners who led their scrubbed and shining families to the front pews on Christmas morning. My father, splendid in the swallowtail coat that he wore as well to medical society meetings, paced before the fire. He lectured and charmed in favor of the late mass and, finally, prevailed.
It was five minutes before midnight when we were shown to our seats. Mr. Phelan, a huge detective who looked like the legendary John L. Sullivan and was certainly the heavyweight champion of Far Rockaway, was ushering. He smiled at my father and leaned in to speak. “Gee, Doc, you’re just under the wire. Sorry about the seats.”
“That’s all right, Eddie,” my father said. “Even the kings were late.”
The altar was centered on the stage, its snowy linens seeming to move in the dancing candlelight. On a raised platform of red and green two-by-fours, James O’Brien, known as far away as West Hempstead for his rendition of “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home,” was playing “Silent Night” on the small organ. Jockey-size and florid of complexion, he was blessed with a golden tenor.
At four minutes past 12, the popular veteran priest, Father Shine, commenced the celebration of midnight mass. Following communion and the Special Christmas Collection — “I trust we’ll have a lovely soft collection…I don’t want to be hearing any silver!” — Mr. O’Brien launched into his showstopper, Adolph Adam’s beautiful “O Holy Night.”
We sang along, but softly, because it was Mr. O’Brien’s moment. As he reached the somewhat imperative line about falling on your knees, the back door of the Lyceum opened to admit a javelin of frigid wind and, right behind it, Mr. Mitt Gaffney, who lived in an unheated bungalow near the beach and on handouts from saloon keepers, the kitchen ladies at the hospital and the limited largesse of Long Island Rail Road commuters, many of whom had been his classmates in better days.
He stood there for a moment, listening to Mr. O’Brien and filling the already close atmosphere with the unmistakable aroma of cheap muscatel. Mr. Phelan’s neck was turning purple as he looked at Mitt Gaffney’s head. It was covered with a drooping red Santa Claus cap, the peak of which terminated in a once-white pom-pom that fell across the left shoulder of his stained Army overcoat like a medal awarded for congenital innocence.
Mr. Phelan whispered as only a 300-pound man can when he needs to make a point but doesn’t want to disturb the world at large. He said, “Mother of God, Mitt, you’re late and mass is nearly over, and you got a helluva bun on and take off that damned hat in church!”
“Go easy, Eddie, easy,” smiled Mitt, removing his droll topping and stuffing it into a pocket. “We’re not in church, we’re at The Overflow and I just overflowed in for a peek.”
Mr. Phelan said, “I’ll give you a peek and more, Mitt, if you don’t shut up and behave yourself. Now hush!”
The latecomer managed to balance himself behind the last row. As the last lingering note rose in the accepted direction of Paradise, Mitt Gaffney stepped into the main aisle and acknowledged Mr. O’Brien’s tour de force. “Bravo, Jimmy! Bravo! You sounded just like an angel! Honest, kiddo, an angel! A real angel!”
Mitt was teetering from side to side, applauding his friend, his enormous freckled hands crashing into each other. Mr. O’Brien stood and stared through his rimless glasses at this display of uninvited support. His expression was akin to the kind you see at the zoo, when a child sees a rhinoceros for the first time. I believed he was about to faint.
The stunned faithful turned as one to fix the speaker with glares, and Mr. Phelan was puffing back from the front of the auditorium. My father reached out and gently but firmly navigated Mr. Mitt Gaffney into the only empty seat in our row.
The glares gave way to head-shaking, then to snickers, which built to a great wave of relieving laughter. My father put a protective arm around the old Army overcoat and told its frail occupant to be quiet.
Father Shine took a deep breath and spoke. His brogue was as soft as rain on pebbles, and his large blue eyes seemed to hold all of the light. “All right, then, settle down all of you.
“Given the fact that I found his somewhat-demonstrative approbation a bit unusual, given the fact that in these parts we’re not given to applauding the sacred music, I must say that I wholeheartedly concurred with Mr. Gaffney’s apreciation of Mr. O’Brien’s divinely inspired performance. You did sound just like an angel, Jimmy. And Mitt, if you’re to clap and bellow again in church — and you’re in church, Lyceum or not — I’ll have Mr. Phelan cart you off to the hoosegow. Now then, the mass is ended. Go in peace. God bless you all, and drive safely.”
On the way home, my mother said that the interruption was disgraceful, but my father said that things don’t happen unless they’re supposed to and that Mr. Mitt Gaffney had brought a unique gift to midnight mass. Not only that, but he had caused everyone to open it and share it right there at The Overflow, and pity those over at the main church who missed out.
Later, in bed, I thought about the red Santa cap and its almost-white pom-pom, and Mr. O’Brien’s facial expression, and Father Shine’s forgiving eyes, and my father. I gazed out into the starry night and wondered if Mr. O’Brien would sing one day as an angel in Heaven and if Mr Mitt Gaffney would be there to applaud him, and I thought that their chances were pretty good.