Midnight Mass, New Mexico, 1809.

And it did seem that the portents and mercies of that Christmas Eve knew no end, for when people came out of the little houses where the refugees had found safety from the blizzard, all saw that the storm was over. The snow had stopped suddenly, as it could in the mountains, where the storm was low on the earth because the earth was so high. Now the sky was calm and clear. the stars seemed immense where they intimately sparkled with light like fire at the heart of ice. In the starlight all the earth was deeply robed in royal snow.

Word went like sparks through the village that nothing had been done in vain – the visiting missioner was here, the patronal statue had arrived, the fires could be lighted, and the feast would take place after all.

In a few moments boys ran down the village street setting alight the fires that had been laid since mid-afternoon – little towers of kindling laid in hollow squares. The snow had drifted about them, but had not soaked into the wood, and a handful of dry straw was enough to set each beacon going. For beacons they were, marking the path of the procession, and signalling through the high mountain darkness so that the Christ Child would know where the village was, and accordingly could visit it tonight. Against the smooth spiralling banks of snow leaped the young firelight, melting away great cauldrons of shadow in the surrounding drifts. When all the fires were blazing in their long lane, there came a brazen tongue of sound from the tower of San Cristóbal, where the bell of 1707 rang out to assemble everyone for the procession.

Roberto, with each arm around the neck of a friend, was helped to a position of honour near the church, where he could see everything without having to move. He was in that state of double awareness that sometimes came to him at his work. He saw everything as though from afar, and yet he felt everything sharply, as at the centre of all experience. Now he saw the high mesa world defined by the black walls of the enclosing mountains. The mesa top lay flat with snow under the starlight. Seen from so far as Roberto’s godlike view, the village at first would look like a single bonfire. But the earthen cubes of the houses threw long shadows over the snow and between the shadows lay wavering blades of warm light. In the dark sides of the houses shone windows like embers.

Dividing the houses and the darkness was the lane of beacon fires that ran all the way to the church door.

In the lane slowly moved the entranced people of the town of San Cristóbal, bathed in firelight and crowned by stars after the storm. They sang together as they walked. Their ancient bell called them closer and closer to itself. Boys ran and jumped over the little fire towers and were chased away by the grotesque figure of a village elder who, masked and false‑voiced, acted once a year on Christmas Eve as the Bogy‑man who must terrify, challenge and delight children.

In the procession young unmarried men came first, followed by unmarried girls. After them walked hand in hand the younger fathers and mothers of the town. Their parents followed them, and then the most elderly of all. Now came four strong youths for whom Roberto watched most keenly, as they bore on their shoulders a platform on which stood his patronal statue of St. Christopher and the Child. The firelight rippled over the figure, and as Roberto squinted at it, considering it critically as its creator, he received a cold rebuff in his mind. The statue was no longer his. It already had a history. He seemed called upon to venerate it humbly, and to forget its simple origin in his own calloused fingers. He bent his head.

When he looked up again, he saw the missioner at the end of the procession, vested in his shabby cope of white brocade and gold lace, that in spite of its hard experience of much travel in saddle‑bags, now glittered and sparkled in the windy firelight.

The missioner’s face was startling. Roberto looked again. He could not be sure of what he saw. Was that long ashen face breaking with every instant into different expressions of suffering, so that it looked almost like a succession of masks passed swiftly over a man’s soul? Or did the flicker of the fires cause that effect of shattered change to pass and pass on the bones and hollows of a face fixed in some wracking plea? He could not say.

The face of the church was plastered with earth and painted a pale yellow that came, as Roberto knew, from the walls of the arroyo. It was waved over with hot light from the nearest fires. The procession entered the portal whose old wooden doors carved with the crown of Castile and the keys of St. Peter were thrown back. Roberto had always admired them.

Passing through the doors, each person was for an instant exposed to the strike of the bronze, brass and silver bell in the tower just overhead. The bell was kept rolling by the sexton, and its halting clangour released downward into the captive air of the church a hard shudder of energy that deafened and shook everyone who entered beneath it. It was a disagreeable sensation, but one so powerful that it came like a privileged ordeal, as though the heavens opened in judgment.

Once past it, the marchers were in the long, plain, box‑like interior of their earthen church, that narrowed at its far end, and always reminded Roberto of the head of a coffin. It was a box of earth in which the villagers solemnly met all the stages of human life.

Roberto was helped to a position in the rear of the church where he could lean against the wall. He saw over the heads of the congregation of San Cristóbal the towering glory of their altar, with its galaxy of home‑made candles, its banks, garlands and sprays of paper blossoms, and its frontal cloth for ceremonial occasions that had been made by women who embroidered it with a design of large flowers and leaves in coarse yarns dyed in the pale colours of grasses and plants that grew on the mesa in spring.

Into the niche framed with paper flowers the statue was lifted. As it faced out over the crowd with the extended arm and hand of its Child (imagine carving fingers in such difficult positions) a sigh of consummation arose from everyone spontaneously. It made Roberto shiver that any work of his should have such meaning for so many people.

He watched the missioner fling holy water upward at the statue and heard him speak a blessing. He spoke in an odd voice, wild and distant, almost the wail of an old man, or, even more strangely, of a forlorn child. Coming down to the foot of the altar to begin the midnight Mass he was stooped as if under a heavy burden. His eyes were half shut and his hands were folded against his lips. He seemed hardly to be present as he moved at the Mass in uncertain steps and turns. Once or twice he raised his head and gazed about and upward, perhaps trying to realise where he was. It was plain to Roberto that the missioner was enduring some inner tempest.

Sometimes strange notions occurred to Roberto. He often noticed that he understood one thing in terms of something else. So now, watching the missioner, he recalled how in the Rio Grande uplands where he lived it was sometimes possible to know that a break in the weather was coming by just watching the behaviour of creatures. For no apparent reason old sheep would toss themselves about like lambkins, and cows would make longing cries like the sound of breath blown through a scraped gourd. Hours would pass, and then faithfully the weather would change, coming with wind, dust and finally rain, and bringing ease to all.

So it was now in the close‑aired church. He remembered the missioner praying aloud in the bedroom a while ago. He had prayed for patience in his exile and – a strange way to put it– his dryness of soul, desiring what he desired with such passion that he did not seem to care if all heard his cry. What do you suppose it was? Roberto turned it all over in his mind. Who was going to answer the prayer? Who else but the Divine Lord? The missioner was longing with all his thorny heart to be one with God. It sobered Roberto to see in the missioner what a shaking experience it must be to carry such a desire.

At the altar the missal was carried from one side to the other, and the missioner, leaning on the table for support, went to meet the book. He read in silence and then faced the people that they should stand. Their eyes were drawn to his by the dying fire of the glare under his deep bony brows. He began to read in a worn whisper. It was the gospel for Midnight Mass. They strained to hear him, wondering if he must stop before he was done. Everyone had the half‑framed thought that here was someone who had come to the end of something, who must either end with it or start all over again.

They did not have long to wait to see which would happen. In his exhausted rasp he read of the birth of Christ in the stable, and of the shepherds in the fields, and then he read :

“— And all at once an angel of the Lord came and stood among them, and they were surrounded in splendour by the radiance of God, until they were afraid. The angel said to them, ‘Ddo not be afraid: for I bring you news to rejoice all the people, and that is, that today in the city of David a Saviour was born for you, who is Christ, the Lord’ — ”

And at this, they saw tears start down his haggard cheeks, and saw him come to stand erect, and heard his voice take power and ring out over them. Finishing the gospel from memory, he put open his arms to embrace them all. His dryness of soul was done with, for the moment anyway. He wept for joy. His tears forced their way like the break of mountain springs into dry runnels that had waited for ever for such assuagement. All who saw could not but weep with him. his love was free. They all knew his old, hard, bitter, earth‑bound shell. Now from it bloomed his love like the lily of the yucca bursting its dry gold pod after winter.

Roberto thumbed away the sting from his own eyes. He knew how the missioner felt. It was something like what happened to him when a design for a carving was right the first time, except that this tonight was the greater glory, for having been carried so heavily for so long in mankind. He looked about him in the coffin‑like, fire‑lighted church of San Cristóbal, and was among those who hearing the missioner heard the love of God, which they would never, despite the failures and distractions of daily life, entirely forget.

There was no sermon, nor any need for one.

The missioner resumed the Mass, and one after another came expressions of joy that now had new fullness. At the elevation of the Blessed Sacrament the little altar bell rang out, and then immediately came the voice of the tower bell of 1707 in its widening circles of jubilation. But even that was not all, for eight young men waited outside the doors for the signal, and when it came, they lifted eight muskets with double charges in them, and fired together such a blast of devotion that Roberto thought it must be heard up and down the river, where others might remark enviously, ‘There is San Cristóbal again’.

As the echo of the fusillade died away in the church, praise arose from the animal creation. Out in their corral at the edge of the town the missioner’s horse heaved a strangled cry, and Governor, the burro, brayed. Roberto heard them, and was glad that, if they had forgotten when to pay their reverence, the musket blasts had reminded them.

And now within the church, another hymn arose. It came from the sagging choir‑loft above the great doors. Out over the worshippers flew the carolling of many birds that pierced their hearts. This jubilant birdsong came from two dozen little boys of the village who had practiced for weeks to make their great effect at the most joyful moment of Christmas Eve. On the floor of the loft were six earthen bowls holding water. Four boys crouched down to each. Into the water they dipped dried reeds that were perforated like flutes. Fingering the stops, the children blew into their reeds and the water bubbled and the bright notes chirping seemed to tell how in the dead of a winter night even the wild birds of the air must lift their songs in praise.

From the novel, The Saintmaker’s Christmas Eve, by Paul Horgan (1903 – 1994), an Irish‑American writer, critic, historian and novelist.

Christmas Box