PEOPLE pity themselves a great deal about Christmas — the work, the expense, the commercialisation, the letdown when it is over. Well, it's approaching like the annual monsoon on a Bengal village. Charterhouse over the years has worked out a way of coping:
I. Treat it first and loremost as a religious festival. Certainly have a crib in your house and, if you must, one of those Germanic Christmas trees. Lay off those drooping paper chains.
2. Don't send any Christmas cards. They are usually only a guilty excuse for not maintaining a proper and civilised relationship with old friends. If circumstances have parted you — so be it.
3. Go easy on the presents. Make multilateral treaties within your family about who is going to give what to whom. Personally I think that necessary presents should be stored, squirrel-like, all during the year so that there is no last minute dash to impossible shops.
4. Plan your feasting. There is no need for lashings of drink unless you always keep lashings of drink. Getting plastered will spoil your "dinner" and ruin your Boxing Day. In this I am no puritan, but I'm always a little amazed by the stocking up for an alcoholic famine that the offtrade licence do before Christmas. with sober men staggering under cornucopian boxes of booze. 5. Mountains of food and little boxes of exotic delicacies are unnecessary and rapidly become as boring in the house as a guest that stays too long.
Turkeys are a purely symbolic luxury (the symbol was imported from the early American colonies who could not find anything better to eat and theirs were wild turkeys anyway).
Turkey tastes of dried Kentucky fried chicken. Roast beef would be more suitable. Better still — get a boar's head — though do not ask me to share It.
The afternoon of Christmas Day can be the deadliest time of the year. Don't sit and quarrel. Or watch the children smash their toys — go to bed. 6. Stay at home -except for going to church. Christmas Day is not the day for parties. Only the closest friends may visit.
7. Why not prepare the dinner jointly and share it with a family you really know?
8. If you know a family in embarrassing need. Don't do a Scrooge and load them with impossible delicacies. If they are "inadequate" give cooked food and sausages.
If there are children give lots of fruit as well as sweets. A good fruit-cake in a tin is an idea. Few people really like Christmas pudding. Mince-pies are OK — but go heavy on the mince and light on the pastry.
9. For goodness sake, don't forget that all the money in the Christmas collections goes to the private purse of the parish priest to pay for small indulgences of the earthly kind.
Far too many of them are too ashamed to mention this fact any more. And a present here is not Out of keeping. Don't put it in the sacristy as you go into Midnight Mass. otherwise the place will end up looking like a bottle party.
10. Don't have a Christmas cake. Cook — and you know how difficult it is to keep servants nowadays — will be most grateful.
11. The Man of the House may go down to his local for a drink before dinner. (Christmas luncheon is the only such meal of the year which may properly be called "dinner").
If he is a regular, which means that he is a discreet and sober man, he will probably be given one free drink by the landlord. Never look a gift glass in the mouth — well, up to a point.
13. Don't pretend Christmas is for the children. They will end up cross, tired, weepy, grizzling and bilious. Design the feast round yourself — or better still, round the Birthday of Christ.
14. Of course it's a most special day. It is the nearest to a Festival of the Human Race when we celebrate the glory of a loving family in reduced circumstances. I really have found it more fun when you don't overdo it. And look who's writing! I used to buy boxes of Carlsbad plums for literary reasons. 15. Ignore this. Except the bit about Christmas being Christian.
Death of a man called Agony
PEOPLE who say that sort of thing used to saythat the most important news in The Times is — or was — in the Births and Deaths columns. This is true in that the business of birth and death is the beginning and end of everything on earth.
Similarly, it is the day to day business of the Church that matters more than the pronouncements of Popes or even the miracles of saints.
The priests should continue to say Mass. and that people participate is the central fact, is what most counts but it hardly lends itself to reportage. The pursuit of salvation is not news.
So with requiems for the dead. To the stranger they are part of a routine at which he may recall that his remains too will some day be the focal point. For families and communities they can have a towering importance.
This week I went to a funeral. It was held in the small, old (c 1 790) house church at Tichborne. The place is small and unobtrusive. You have to walk through private gardens to get to it.
It is darkly handsome inside —with a gallery for a family from the house. it has a fine carved altar with Christ and the Two Thieves on the reredos. It has massive Flemish altar rails.
Although it has the conventional copies of religious paintings on the walls, there is nothing Italianate about it as there is about most such period chapels. It is greatly loved and, mercifully here, no one has tried to turn the altar round.
The dead man was Commander Geoffrey Paine, but he was never called anything but "Agony" — which is what they do in the Services. He was a tall, slow spoken, witty gentleman with a very slightly detached air and I cannot imagine that anyone ever disliked so patently good a man.
I-k and his family used this church whenever they could. They used to clean it and do the flowers for it and trim the lamp and check the linen. llis family turned up the day before to give it a spring cleaning for the funeral.
For the funeral itself the tiny sanctuary seemed almost lined with a magnificence of flowers. Most times when I come back from Mass and someone asks what were the flowers like I can't remember. This time they were an explosion.
The coffin lay half into the sanctuary. But it did not seem a fearful thing. The congregation packed as tight as boat people, sat in the most utter silence, Waiting. There was a muted hubbub from the sacristy at the back.
Then the priests walked in. There were two grandsons to serve. Bishop Cormac Murphy O'Connor sat beside the altar while the Mass was said by his brother, Mgr Pat, assisted by a naval chaplain.
It was neither sad nor dramatic, but sensible and intimate and comforting. Since there must be death, this is the best way man has ever devised of dealing with it.
This Bishop spoke briefly, referring to "Agony". "Agony" he was called again in the Canon. Nothing could have been more natural, One by one the family did the readings.
I have always particualrly admired the Requiem Mass and I am sure it has not been in the least diluted or spoilt by the changes. Indeed, it is more corn forting and optimistic even than before. We sang a couple of almost joyous hymns.
Then, with difficulty the undertakers hoisted the coffin, turned and almost had to push their way through the crowd. But it was every bit as decorous as the burial of a prince.
He was buried in the graveyard of the old Saxon church on a hilltop nearby. It is one of the more quietly beautiful places in England.
The church even has a Catholic aisle where the Mass is said on every Feast of St Peter and Paul because it belongs to the Tichborne family who owned it and kept the Faith.
Agony will he greatly missed in his parish. But the way they put him away almost made sense of what is to me the infuriating and intolerable insult of death. But he really was ready for it, and older men could almost envy him. His widow will be desolate but will understand better than me.
Laughter and a pinch of malice
On the subject of Christmas, if you happen to know a civilised Catholic who likes laughter and history and just a pinch of invigorating malice, may I recommend a book? It is called "Woodruff at Random". The only drawback is that it costs £5.95.
Through clenched teeth, I must also report that it is published by The Universe, which, for other purposes. does not exist within the enclosed community of the Catholic Herald. But even in so sacred a brotherhood as ours, the rude world breaks in.
A few years ago an errant .postulant reporter looked out and reported flying machines with four fans in front of them. Surely more than God intended. The lad was dismissed and is now a Jesuit.
However, this is a splendid compilation made by Mary Craig, who is a rather special person, an ally and a perpetual source of guilt. Because she works and I coast.
The late Douglas Woodruff wrote his column in — oh dear, The Tablet.
Prior Dowden will be livid with me! For some 40 years almost every week. he wrote the most learned thing in journalism. Charterhouse has consciously tried not to imitate the inimitable.
Mary Craig has put up a marvellous entertainment, with fireworks of learning and bombards of laughter. It's not a coffee-table book. It's a bedside or looside book.
Douglas had total recall of whatever he read. Alas, I can scarcely remember the names of the books I have read. The other day I was shown a television obituary and at the end I said: "What a mess". "Odd", said the producer, "you wrote it".
But you will find everything here.
Take "Kings: English". Here you will find that Henry V at his marriage feast to Katherine of France served sturgeon with whelks, roach, perch, gudgeon and char.
These are almost all the sort of course fish that fishermen by inland ponds -.-and fishing is the largest participatory sport in the kingdom — mostly throw back after weighing and counting. Fishing, however, does not count as a blood sport.
But he was writing about lampreys as delicious fish, In fact they have unpleasant habits and they have almost disappeared from our fresh waters. The two things remembered about Henry I 1068 1135, is that his hair was drowned in the White Ship and Henry never smiled again and that the same king died of a surfeit of lampreys.
As I have been taken to task for being too English by some tiresomely professional Irish. let me add one bit that he quotes from Mgr Ronnie Knox.
St Gregory the Great when he saw the British slaves in Rome did not say: "Not Angles, hut angels". He said they were: "Not Jutes but brutes". To soften the sword thrust, I rather think Douglas, inter alla, claimed Jutish descent from his origin in Kent.
A reporter's Cri de Coeur
on television about Padre Pio.
They were asking how they could get help. One rather desperate letter about a relation with cancer came through the Catholic Herald. I know it is absurd for me to try to advise and I pass such letters on. But half answered, I have lost my draft and the original letter. If the lady cares to, please do write again.
As a reporter, I feel overwhelmed by the letters. I am not a spiritual Marjorie Proops. But to have lost this letter has left both my wife and I feeling unusually guilty.