I have just done the rounds of the international TV news channels at the end of Christmas Day. In the process, I have been subjected to at least twenty similar, but different, definitions of what Christmas is all about, all of which gave me indigestion without eating anything. I’ll cut to the chase, then. Christmas, to me, is at once the solemn and joyous celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Given the complexities of this simple statement, I shall not be saying anything more, except that in the interval between these two paragraphs, I have just had a delightful discussion by way of an exchange of comments with an acquaintance on Facebook who has posted a picture of her brand new toilet seat. Just one illustration of the abundant wealth we experience as human beings on this planet.
While some of you may be wondering how to link the topics introduced into this blog so far, you might like to look at this photo of the potted poinsettia (the “Christmas flower” in Portugal) and the candle outside our front door, symbolic of “the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” (John 1:9). I think the candle is the kind normally put on gravestones here because of it’s all-weather design, but it suits my purpose for that reason. I light it at sunset on Christmas Eve; thirty hours later, it is still burning.
Christmas, abundance of variety in life, fire and flowers. So far nothing about shoes and mist.
The shoes and mist are part of the experience of attending midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Although we have been in Portugal for a little over four years, I realised with surprise that this is our fifth Christmas here. This fact is intimately connected to shoes. My shoes. Or boots, to be more precise. I have been wearing the same pair of boots ever since we landed in Portugal. They are leather, but they are African boots, which means they are not very warm in winter. A couple of weeks ago, I bought my first pair of shoes in this country. Cheap, snug, black ankle boots. They are warm. They also complement that elusive pair of jeans which I have finally found.
There is no picture yet of this fantastic pair of jeans for two possible reasons: My partner’s hands shake too much from MS to take a decent photo, and I am not in the habit of going up to anyone else and asking for photographs. That, and, I cannot photograph them if I am wearing them all the time, can I?
So the new boots, prevent frozen feet in European winters. I have tried them out a couple of times. I fully intended to wear them to midnight Mass. Now, when people speak of Christmas, one thought always springs to mind: cold feet.
That first Christmas in our new country was wonderful, strange, cold and wet. The service was in a language I barely understood, although the Liturgy is such that you can follow what is going on, and with a little knowledge of Latin, even understand fragments. We had come here in faith; we had no idea of what was ahead – and just as well, because it has been quite an arduous journey since. It was strange to be in the house of God; a house of strangers where, “we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” sounded without the reverberation normally sensed; where we were defined by people’s curiosity, and curious lack of welcome by all except the priest himself. We were too new to understand the oddities of this community, and the apparent oddity of us – the very tall one and the one in the wheelchair – too new to understand how odd it was to have a foreigner in their midst… Yet we respond several times during the Mass that He is in our midst…I was too new to be able to connect in the language of these, the faithful, so foreign to me, yet at home in their own place where they had always been. I used to joke that I will never know what half the things were that people said to me, but it is true: I won’t. I can only remember that my feet were cold, as was the rest of me. I remember emerging from the Church in the iciness of the first hour of Christmas morning, and so very glad to bundle my partner and our only friend in Portugal into our little car, and hurry home.
How different last night was. The one in the wheelchair stayed at home for the first time, too weak now, and too easily fatigued to make the enormous effort to leave the house. She had already participated from the comfort of our new couch, thanks to the modern miracle of satellite television, in the solemn Mass presided over by the Pope transmitted live from the Vatican, and I, less intensely from the more intimate comfort of my new jeans planted firmly on the couch, with the laptop in front of me. There was something comforting about translating an accounting manual from German into English, with Latin liturgy on the TV overlaid with a voice in corresponding Portuguese. It worked well for me, but I cannot rely on live Masses on TV every day, so it will be back to the desk for me as soon as this glorious holiday is over.
When the time came to leave for Church, I was already dressed (yes, in that elusive pair of jeans). All I needed were my shoes. When I opened the wardrobe, my hands dodged between the new and the old boots. I decided to test a recently-formed theory that we were getting used to the European cold. You may laugh; the Algarve is the warmest region in Europe. I chose the old boots – and the smart jacket, and scarf.
As I enter the Church, a recent acquaintance mouths hello. It looks like standing room only tonight, but then someone indicates there is a place on a bench down the left side. As I sit down, the lady who used to work at the bank, and arranged my credit card, smiles in greeting. She was transferred, and is back in the village in the first time in ages. These days, I hear, remember, and understand when we are given the response to the responsorial Psalm. In the middle of the singing of said Psalm, I see the Swedish woman who learnt Portuguese at night school with me a couple of years ago come in with two friends. She greets me by name; I tell her there are empty spaces right in the front. I notice the chairperson of the parish committee frowning at me, because I am not paying attention to the Psalm, but I don’t care. I know what it is like to be a foreigner in this Church; I know a welcome is always welcome. Gone for me are the dog-eared sheets of paper with the order of service, the words of the liturgy, the words of the prayers. I finally managed to commit them all to memory somewhere during our third year here. It is with some irony tonight that I notice the young Portuguese couple next to me, whom I have not seen before, are not as sure of the words to all these things. Their hearts are in the right place, though – or want to be. The “peace be with you” is fun. I shake a whole lot of hands to get to where a dear friend is sitting. As I greet her, she whispers that her two sisters send love from Africa to my partner and I. I spare a moment to think “Shalom”, the greeting with the nicest sound, to my ears.
This year, we are treated to two beautiful hymns by the daughter of Dutch residents who is training to be an opera singer and is currently visiting with her parents. Her mother is playing the organ. Our priest says that her father was most insistent that they wanted to be part of tonight’s celebration. What he does not mention to the congregation (but I witnessed it) was that he heartily welcomed the idea, and he and the whole family had a group hug when the request was made and agreed to the day before. The second hymn she sang was Panis Angelicus. Dare I say that she sang it better than Andrea Bocelli? Well, she did. Bread of the angels, indeed.
There are two couples in the congregation who are celebrating 50 years and 35 years of marriage respectively. The priest gives them a special blessing after Communion. I am surprised that I know both couples. This brings a wave of gratitude over me, which I find inappropriately weird. After the service, I congratulate them. I am happy. I am happy too, to see a member of the choir; she is there with her baby girl, born sixteen days ago. She says hello. It is her first time back at Church since the birth, and she wants everyone to meet this child. She is truly happy.
As I come out of the Church, I realise that I am part of the exchange of greetings of Happy Christmas, and wonder vaguely when exactly it was that I crossed the line in the minds of others, that line between polite formality and sincerity.
As I come out of the Church into the night, there is a soft fog with the lightest of rain caressing the lamplight, caressing the happy huddles of people lingering, looking out for friends and relatives in the crowd, caressing my face. It is cold and wet, but I am not cold and wet, and my feet are just fine. I embrace it all. I hear snippets of conversation in this new language now, and no longer have to lip-read at the same time to get the import. I take a deep breaths of this gentle air. The best gifts are never wrapped.