Page 7, 14th December 1990

14th December 1990
Page 7
Page 7, 14th December 1990 — Jamaican born Catholic writer John Figueroa relates a tale of
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Locations: Kingston, London, Sydney

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Jamaican born Catholic writer John Figueroa relates a tale of

nativity celebrations in his native land for our series of Advent short stories

Christmas under the boiling sun

F

/ / R Sydney is in trouble," I had heard it dearly at the end of school. But before I could get hold of a boy I could trust to give me the low down we were sweating at football practice in the Jamaican sun, hot as ever despite the seasonal arrival of the cool "Christmas breeze".

I quickly forgot all about it.

But as I was falling asleep that night I clearly heard my father, who had come in rather late, whispering to my mother: "That idiot Fr Isaacs has done it again."

Walking to our Jesuit college next morning, I asked various friends if they knew what was wrong.

"All nonsense", said one of the knowledgeable fifth formers — we did not have a sixth then.

Fr Sydney was one of the local priests, the others were mostly US Jesuits. Nationalists were already saying that we should have our own priests, and no doubt missionary societies were getting tired of "supporting" our church. But I forgot about Fr Sydney for nearly a week. The cool Christmas breeze was blowing, and Christmas was in the air. Some country cousins had already sent up to Kingston lots of the red leaved sorrel bush, ready for infusion with ginger, and mixing with rum, for our special Christmas drink. I had already juiced a number of sweet oranges and set fermentation going for the special Christmas drink I had invented which was going to make me rich and famous.

And we had started rehearsals, as altar boys, for the elaborate Pontifical midnight high mass which was a must for all the parish, and for not a few non-Catholics also. As a matter of fact, many questionable characters would turn up and cause much argument among the pious — should Mr X well known as living in sin with Miss Y who used to be a star convent girl dare to show his face — and his best suit — at midnight mass? There were always the charitable gossips who felt that one should not underrate the power of grace.

And of course some clerics went out of their way to welcome budding politicians of more than dubious "morality". But on the whole it was agreed that Mr Warwick who was a scandalous "boarder" chez Mrs Brown had too good a voice to be excluded from the choir for that reason alone. His rendition in a bass baritone of Veni Creator Spiritus — before the sermon — and his strident notes in a mad Mercandante mass surely gave praise to the Lord.

And helped to keep awake, at one in the morning, an enormous congregation, tired but happy, nearly overpowered by heat, incense and a variety of odours too varied to catch in language — rum, khus khus grass, Chanel Number 5, "camphorated oil" (used against"the night air"), Bay rum, brilliantine . . .

Always penniless, I had agreed with the chemistry master to clean up the lab thoroughly as soon as the Christmas break began. That would enable me to have some money to spend on family presents, and the Christmas garden party which our cathedral ran every year. (Some fussy English people were always saying that it wasn't really a garden party, but a fair — but then they were always trying to straighten us out. Some of them said it wasn't real Christmas anyway as it would be warm; and could you have Christmas without snow?).

But the garden party was our big Christmas bash, when among other things one could actually speak to the convent girls! All kinds and classes came to it. There was a special magic about walking, to the music of the brass band of the Alpha orphanage, into the big park alight with fairy lights which did not manage to hide the large bright stars behind them. (Late enough, as after midnight mass we used to wonder at the fac that one could see in the heavens both the Southern Cross and the North Star!)

Alas the various attractions at the garden party — the merrygo-round, for instance — had been going up in price. The year before I had managed to engage the generosity of the fifth former in charge: I helped him collect from the fanciful horseriders, bobbing up and down and spinning around to automatic music, and he let me have a few free rides!

Busy with cleaning up the lab, I only caught up with Fr Sydney's scandalous behaviour much later — thanks to one of the gossips who frequented my mother's back verandah of a Saturday morning. She invariably wore an ancient black straw hat to which a few faded red berries still clung. Some times she wore a veil.

"Have you heard, Lilly, what Fr Sydney said from the pulpit?" she eagerly enquired of my mother.

"Yes, I was there at mass."

"My Harold says the American priests would never allow it. They need the money too much for running the cathedral parish all year."

"Its a crazy idea. These native priests! We will be much worse off as soon as we get more of them."

"Ooh, I thought your Robert was thinking of going that way That was me; I dodged out of sight quickly; some pious nuns had been putting this story about. And I suspected my grandmother had something to do with it too. They had not consulted me on the subject, of course. I was all of 14 years old, and a failed catechist!

,, e'll be trying to H

stop midnight mass next. Our boys go back to England to be trained, and pick up these odd ideas," one of my father's rum-drinking friends was suggesting that Sunday morning as I brought in ice for their usual after high mass "session".

"As I understand it, it's pretty cold there. You'd have to stay home at Christmas. And they are pretty glum people, anyway."

So the whole story came out. Fr Sydney, in the pulpit, had not advocated divorce, or announced that he was "resigning the priesthood" to get married — priests left quietly in those days! But, mirable dictu, having read the annual announcement of the traditional two day Christmas and Boxing Day garden party, and the usual exhortation for support, had coolly said, in his best icy voice, that he was all against it . . . Christmas was a family feast. People should stay home and celebrate with the family!

"What, all day?" enquired one of the jolly ones who was already on his third rum.

I was worried. Could Fr Sydney really stop the garden party? It was our only real opportunity for a celebration, more or less on our own. I had been practising hitting bottles off our back wall with an old tennis ball; I wanted to impress Maggie at that particular stall at the garden party. In fact I used to help her father put the "stall" up. On Christmas morning he would plant the posts with the help of Joe, the priests' factotum — usually rather unsteady with nativity celebrations. A group of us boys would decorate the bare planks with large coconut fronts — it was not only decoration; it was protection from the powerful afternoon sun, and from any little drizzle that might come at night.

It hardly ever rained at Christmas; one year when it did, we were very miserable. It ruined all but the beginning of the garden party. That year my father's "roulette wheel" stall — the English would have called it a "wheel of fortune" — which used to net many pounds for the cause, hardly earned more than a few shillings. And Maggie's mother who had a thing about rain had taken Maggie and her sisters home before we had had much more than a nod and a giggle.

an in London lecturing. I had slipped down the stairs at the university and hurt my ankle very badly. I was more than upset. I was to read, in a few days, the "In the Beginning was the Word" gospel at Christmas mass in the Buckinghamshire village we had settled in; I doubted that the ankle would mend in time. Someone called a mini cab.

I knew that I was going to need assistance to get from the cab to my friend's front door in Crouch End. So I was delighted when the driver who came was black. I thought he was a West Indian; he was Nigerian. He in turn thought I was an Englishman. So we had some fun over this, and got to talking.

/ These people in this England are dreadful," he said.

"Discrimination?" I queried.

"Na; na; my mates treat me well! But do you know, they have to go home at Christmas!"

"Have to?"

"Yes, they call it a family feast!"

"Well?"

"I asked one of my mates about his mother the other day. 'The cow,' he says, 'I haven't seen her for a year. But I'll have to go spend Christmas with her.' That's how they treat their mothers!"

"Goodwill to all," I countered.

"Not so; not so. Only to the family; and you know what they call a family! If they have more than two children in a house here they vex bad, as you West Indians would say."

He all but lifted me into Eddy's house. He had a feeling for the body, for real contact, a thing so many Europeans have lost — except, I suppose, in matters of sex. Have you recently exchanged the sign of peace in an English church? Or tried to grasp your neighbour's hand during the Our Father?

And this somatic awareness came out in a most interesting way as we discussed Christmas later. For we had, in our "slack" Third World way, he a Nigerian from Jos, I, a Jamaican now resident in England, decided not to break off a promising conversation. So we sat down — over coffee, alas! He was driving a cab.

What did he like best about Christmas?

"To be out in the open."

"No, but more than that!"

"Well, I went to a mission school, and I sang in the choir. I loved midnight mass . . . We had an old crazy priest who used to drill us in the hymns and chants. He used to like to say 'Boy, you know what Et incarn, I can't quite remember the Latin' . . ."

I supplied it for him: Et incarnatus est.

His fact lit up.

"He used to say: 'Boy, it means "And he became flesh". Flesh like you and me.' That always thrilled me. The old boy was a good egg. But we thought him a bit crazy for he would add 'Flesh like your mother's flesh'. We did not like that too much — the mention of our mothers. 'He got the flesh from his mother, boy,' he would add." I guess he was right there!"

I pedantically suggested to him that he was really thinking the beginning was the Word . . ." He joined in the next phrase: "And the Word was God." And the Word was God had become flesh . . That's what the old boy told us; and it's the best thing about Christmas. And being outside, not cooped up in a house like hens; outside, free like people at one of our animal fairs, with dancing and games and chewing sugar cane and drinking . . . As you West Indians would say, 'Like you celebrating some thing, man . . .' "

Ithought of our garden party and dear Fr Sydney. Good man, he was trying to "civilise" us, to make us more like the English. The only way the family could celebrate the birth of the God who had become human flesh was to lock all the doors and tun inward. Weil, as my Jamaican motherin-law always declared St Paul to have said, "every man to his own order!"

Fr Sydney did not prevail in stopping the Christmas Day garden party. Why? Reasons

economic, cultural, aesthetic, hedonistic? Inertia? And he did shortly after his scandalous behaviour spend six months abroad at a retreat house, they said. After all Jesuit discipline is Jesuit discipline!

Anyway even as a raw adolescent, very much his opponent in this matter, I was much impressed with the fact that he was sporting enough to turn up in the boiling sun, on Christmas morning, to give us a hand with the decoration of my father's stall even though he had earlier celebrated three masses at far away parts of the country.

He had picked up a large load of coconut fronds on his way back to Kingston — no doubt the gift of some parishioner who took St Paul rather seriously in the matter of heaping coals of fire on the heads of those who offend us!

The Nigerian cab driver got up to leave. There was work to be done. What was he going to do at Christmas, I enquired. With wicket pout he said that he would spend it in the open. I asked him what he meant.

"Well, my boss charges three times the regular rate over the holiday. And as neither trains nor buses run, we make a packet, and the tips are good. If you are not well off enough to run a car you need to use us! Or stay put as you should at Christmas! Perhaps I'll get a fare to Westminster Cathedral and stay on for midnight mass!"

I could not show him to the door. He let himself out, and I knew that I was not going to be able to get to church to read "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God . . . and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among . ."

It was so disappointing. But nothing as bad as when I hit all the bottles over at the garden party in Kingston, and Maggie was not even looking. She had taken up with a red headed Massachusetts youth, a nephew of one of the priests, who had come down to Jamaica to see what a Christmas in the sun was like!




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