CHAPTER NINETEEN: The Midnight Mass
It is Christmas Eve. All the children are in bed fast asleep. But soon Mum will wake everyone up. It is almost time for Midnight Mass.
Mum has decided that Annie will go to Mass in her pyjamas but the other children sleepily pull on their clothes. Annie doesn't really want to wake up. As soon as she is fastened into her car seat in the van, she drifts back to sleep. All the other children are feeling excited. They are hardly ever awake this late at night. The world looks and feels so different at this hour. It is a new and wondrous place.
The Nickleby family arrives at the church and everyone slowly tumbles out of the van. Kate stops and looks up at the sky. There is not a cloud in sight. Thousands of stars are twinkling like jewels. Kate almost expects to see angels in the sky too. The air is fresh and deliciously cool. As everyone walks towards the church, the sound of their footsteps, on the path, seems extra loud in the quiet of the night. Ahead of them is the church. It stands alone in the dark. Light spills out from the doorway. Then the silence is broken by the sound of tuneful voices. The choir is warming up.
Dad leads the way down the aisle to the front of the church. Everyone, except Edward and Joe, slide into a pew. The boys go off to the sacristy. They are going to serve for Father Brown. Joe is yawning. Mum hopes Edward and Joe don't fall asleep on the altar.
The church feels very special, an almost magical place. Nothing can be seen through the windows. Not a ray of light shines through the stained glass. It is as if the church is the only place that exists on earth. Candles flicker, their shadows dancing. Huge vases of white and red Christmas poinsettia flowers gaze down on the altar.
"Look!" whispers Lizzie pointing to one side of the altar. She can see a stable, its floor covered with straw. This is the crib, the nativity scene where Mary and Joseph are waiting for the arrival of Jesus. The manger is empty.
"We'll go and have a closer look after Mass," whispers back Dad. Lizzie hopes she can stay awake until then. She wants so much to see the baby Jesus.
Quietly, the church fills up. Everyone has to shuffle along to make room for all the new arrivals. No-one cares if they are a little squashed. It is so exciting to be celebrating Midnight Mass. After such a long wait, Christmas is almost here.
Suddenly the church is filled with the rich tones of the organ. Everyone stands up. Celeste recognises the carol, O Come, All Ye Faithful. She smiles. She knows most of the words. She sings up as loud as she can. Kate doesn't look sternly at Celeste. Kate is too happy and excited to worry about Celeste's singing.
Father Brown processes slowly up the aisle with the altar boys. Edward is carrying the crucifix. Joe is carrying the statue of baby Jesus. Joe doesn't grin at Celeste. Joe doesn't even look at his family in the pew. He is concentrating hard. He doesn't want to drop Jesus. When they reach the altar, Joe turns towards the crib. He gently places baby Jesus in the manger.
Tonight there is no fidgeting. Mum and Dad do not have to chase any children back into their pew. They do not have to worry about Annie's noise. All the children are too tired to be naughty. They are quite content to sit quietly. Soon Mum hears a strange little sound. She looks down at Lizzie. Lizzie's head has fallen onto her chest. She is snoring softly. Mum smiles. Mum hopes she doesn't fall asleep too. She is almost as tired as the children.
Father Brown is at the lectern. He is giving his homily. He is talking about how Jesus became a little baby just for us. He reminds everyone how much Jesus loves us. Behind Father Brown are Edward and Joe. Joe's head falls towards his lap and then suddenly it jerks upright again. Joe opens his eyes wide and then the next minute he closes them again. Dad knows Joe is having trouble staying awake.
Now Father Brown is swinging the thurible. It contains the burning coals of incense. White-grey clouds of smoke rise into the air. They rise up like prayers ascending to God in Heaven. Edward breathes in the sweet smell. It is such a sacred, Godly smell.
Father Brown takes the bread and the wine. He is saying the special words, "This is my Body…this is my Blood…" Everyone is kneeling so still and silent. This is such a wonderful moment. Kate thinks about how Father Brown is bringing Jesus down from Heaven onto the altar. It is just like when Jesus came into the world as a tiny baby on that first Christmas Day.
It is time for Holy Communion. Dad struggles out of the pew with Annie in his arms. She is still fast asleep. But Lizzie is awake again. Mum holds onto her hand just in case she stumbles. Lizzie is still half-asleep. Kate and Celeste follow Mum. Everyone thinks how special it is to receive Jesus on the night of His birth. Their hearts are overflowing with happiness as they kneel in thanksgiving
The organ launches joyfully into the final carol. Everyone struggles to their feet again. Up on the altar, Joe yawns widely but Edward does not poke him in the side. Edward is too busy yawning himself.
The carol comes to a stirring end. Everyone kneels for a final prayer of thanksgiving. Then Lizzie shakes Dad's arm gently. "Can we go and see baby Jesus now?"
Dad smiles at the children. They have all done so well. "Yes, of course," he says. "We'll all go."
All the family kneel around the crib. Annie has woken up and is leaning drowsily against Dad. Everyone looks at the statue of Mary. She is gazing in wonder at the newborn Jesus lying on the straw in the manger. Her eyes are full of love. Joseph is standing behind Mary. He looks like he is protecting her. There are two shepherds with several sheep. One shepherd has his headdress in his hand and the other is holding a staff. A cow stands in the background.
Everyone says a little prayer to Jesus.
Annie is too sleepy to say much. She whispers, "Happy Birthday, Jesus", and then she gently blows a kiss towards Him.
Lizzie just says, "I love Christmas, Jesus and I love You!"
Celeste is thinking, "You are such a beautiful baby, Jesus. I love babies."
Joe is telling Jesus he is glad Christmas has arrived. He thinks about all the little sacrifices he made during Advent. They were his gifts for Jesus. He can't help wondering what gifts he will receive later that day.
Kate's heart feels like it is bursting with joy. Christmas is such a wonderful time of year.
Edward is saying, "Thank you for keeping me awake, Jesus. It was so special serving at Mass tonight."
Mum and Dad are holding hands. Mum looks at the baby Jesus, and she and Dad share a secret smile.
Everyone takes one last look at baby Jesus. They know he is only a statue and not real. But the statue does remind them that Jesus became a little baby for them. They all know that the real Jesus is in the tabernacle behind the altar. They don't forget to say goodbye to Jesus as they genuflect towards the tabernacle before leaving the church.
It is very, very late when everyone falls into bed. Mum hopes the children won't get up too early the next morning. She doesn't want them to be too tired to enjoy Christmas Day.
In the morning, Kate wakes up Mum and Dad. She has made them a cup of tea.
"What time is it?" asks Mum struggling to open her eyes.
"Don't worry, Mum," reassures Kate. "It's really late. At least 7 o'clock. Come on. It's Christmas Day. Happy Christmas!"
Celeste pops her head around the bedroom door. "Can we have presents soon?" she asks hopefully. Annie and Lizzie also appear. All the children look remarkably fresh and bright. It is just Mum and Dad who look like they've stayed up all night.
Kate has made her famous pancakes for breakfast. Everyone is hungry and the pancakes disappear quickly. Dad volunteers to wash the dishes. Morning prayers are said. And then it is present time.
Mum leads the way to the lounge. In the corner is a most enormous Christmas tree. It touches the ceiling. Dad had to saw the top off it to fit it into the house. The tree is overloaded with baubles, stars, angels, strings of buttons, tinsel and bells. Lights of all colours are sparkling from every branch. Under the tree is a sea of gifts. The presents are of all shapes and sizes. The children's eyes shine with anticipation.
There is a lot of excited squealing as the presents are opened. Soon the floor is covered with ripped off wrapping paper. Poppy is burrowing underneath it all. She is enjoying Christmas too.
At last all the parcels have been opened. "This is such a wonderful Christmas!" exclaims Celeste. "The best Christmas we've ever had."
"You said that last year… and the year before that," laughs Kate. But everyone knows what Celeste means.
"There is one last present," says Mum. "It's a very special gift. But it won't arrive until next winter." She smiles mysteriously at Dad.
All the children are puzzled and then Kate thinks she understands. "A baby! We're going to get a new baby sister or brother."
"Yes," says Dad. "I can't think of a better gift, can you?" No-one else can think of a better gift either. Would the baby be a girl or a boy? What will they call the baby? Everyone is talking at once.
Mum and Dad sit quietly listening to the children. They are thinking about their special Christmas present. "Do you realise we will be celebrating next Christmas with a new baby in the family?" says Mum.
"We'll be taking a baby to Midnight Mass next year," says Dad.
Mum thinks about crying babies and long Masses and being tired. Going to Midnight Mass, next year, will be very difficult. And then Mum decides it doesn't matter at all. She thinks about kneeling down before the crib and adoring the baby Jesus. Next time she does that, she will have her own baby in her arms. It will be a very special moment.
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