Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Last Holy Night - A Christmas Memory

On Christmas mornings in Dublin in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s my siblings would line up along the stairs ordered by age—a serried and, over the years, elongating rank of exuberance Heneghan children—before descending to give and receive (mainly to receive) gifts.

Tinsel glistered on the banisters—my mother having stayed up late a couple of weeks before to surprise us with the decorations—I can remember each enchanting piece: the wreaths, the multi-hued tinsel, a plastic Santa face on the kitchen door, the sprigs of plastic holly, and Christmas cards from friends and family known and obscure (“who was Uncle Neddie?”), arrayed on strings stretched across the walls, each greeting attached by a little festive red clip. How the fairy lights twinkled on the tree; in more adventurous years we had flashing lights, but the steadier glow from the fairy-tale carriage lights were more evocative. A manger constructed in his by my father crafty years—drilled, if I correctly recall, into an alcove adjacent to the hall door—hosted the Holy Family, the visiting Magi, and an appropriately sized herd of domesticated animals statically venerating the infant Christ who had been installed that previous evening by the youngest and presumptively godliest of us children onto his little bed of hay.

The run-up to the big day had been a frenzy of yuletide delights: we had taken out and read, and reread Christmassy storybooks, we had visited the illuminated shop-fronts on Grafton Street, we had compiled our lists—I once requested and received a tin of baked beans (thanks Santa Claus, I suppose)—and like flocks of festive but discordant sparrows, neighborhood children flitted from house to house singing carols for some charity or another. We were in the mood for Christmas. Even that year, when caroling with the St Pius X school choir near St Stephen’s Green and I had vomiting so splashingly on the frozen footpath, and my fellow tiny choristers circled around my racked body to shield the festive crowd from the tiny outrage, I now count among the legendary Christmases.

It was Midnight Mass—which in our parish was held at 9:30 pm on Christmas Eve (“and we all know why,” as Father Lee once declared with a sigh, though we did not, in fact, really know why; perhaps mass was early to avoid last call at The Morgue in the village, and the subsequent grand disgorging of revelers who might stagger into church for a Christmas benediction and a nice snooze)—it was Midnight Mass that was the acme of the excitement, at least in those years that I remained faithful. We listened to the nativity story, sometimes both Saint Matthew and Saint Luke’s being read aloud by Father Lee, and then we children would compete to make my mother laugh during the service—(how many children, I wonder, have fancied themselves comedians because they once upon a time made their mother laugh?)

And then Christmas would truly arrive when Billy Lang, the local tenor, mounted the stair to the balcony at St Pius X Basilica and sang O Holy Night to the hushed congregation. Oh how secure we felt, how sheltered from the elements, how sacred it all was.

The year that Billy Lang lay dying of cancer, he had been cautioned against it, and yet he still came to mass, and we all waited—several congregants sobbing—as he was helped up the stairs to give his last rendition of that glorious hymn. When I reflect upon it now (the years are becoming harder to separate) I might no longer have been a child when Billy sang one final time, but that night, in retrospect, was to be the last of my childhood Christmases, if not, in fact, the very last night of childhood.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Alternative Field Trips To The Art Institute Of Chicago: Broken Art

The Art Institute of Chicago is unremarkable in this one respect: like every world class art museum its galleries teem with works representing indefatigable artistic industry besieged by the entropic desolation that all the works of humankind are heir to.
Our lot is to amass and assemble; the universe responds, dispassionately, with decay and dispersion. Millennia of creative effort crumble away. Walk through any decent sized art museum and behold the craquelure of old oils, the loss of patina in the watercolors, the splintering of carved wood, dents in metalwork, and the extremities snapped off old stonework. Can there be a pleasure in art that is completely unhinged from the intimations of loss ? The sense of loss that decay evokes may intensify pleasure if you incline to morbidity.
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