A Christmas Story
(Circa 1949; Photo by Francis Poisson)
The Christmas holiday at the White House on Temple Street during the Forties looms very large in my memory. It was an old fashioned family Christmas with lights and trees, indoors and out, and presents and excitement and the smell of good food cooking. There was plenty of snow, Christmas carols, and it all built to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at Sacred Heart Church, just up the hill. It was an annual tradition.
It was a great honor to be picked as an altar boy to assist at Midnight Mass. Since I lived close to the church, and was frequently called on short notice as a substitute for kids who didn’t show up, I usually got the nod from Father O’Brien for Midnight Mass. Besides, everyone remembered the debacle at last year’s Midnight Mass downstairs, in the lower chapel. This Mass was intended to accommodate the overflow crowd that filled the decorated main church, and where the music played and the congregation sang, and the incense wafted through the aisles.
The downstairs chapel was pretty Spartan. A few candles and poinsettias, but not much else. Last year, the priest had asked altar boy Roy Flynn if he had an ideas to liven it up a bit. Roy did. He had a portable phonograph and some 78 RPM records, along the lines of Bing Crosby singing “Silent Night,” and other such Christmas hits. It was a bit profane for the time, but the good priest agreed it would do, and Roy Flynn set up his phonograph and made ready for play. Alas for Roy, be brought several mixed albums and in the excitement, he placed the wrong record on the turn table. When Father entered the altar in all his glory, the phonograph played “Cocktails for Two” by Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Henceforth, phonographs (and Roy) were banned from Midnight Mass.
In every series of life events there comes a payback time, and this year Midnight Mass was mine. Uncle George told me once, “We send and receive our own letters.” Most of mine worked out to my advantage, and this year’s downstairs Midnight Mass had a little appropriate music from an old pump organ, and all went to everyone’s satisfaction.
After Midnight Mass, we returned home for hot chocolate and gathered around the tree with great excitement as my father distributed the presents that my mother had selected, shopped for, and wrapped. My father had the lead: he distributed the presents. Most importantly of all, the family was all together and around me.
The holiday season would officially start just after Thanksgiving when Santa Claus made his first appearance, waving his way down Main Street, on the back of a fire truck with its lights flashing and siren howling. My sister Mary’s husband, Paul Morin, took his two sisters, Judy and Bunny, and me to see the event each year. The firemen threw candy and small toys from the truck. Santa Clause waved hello. We all shouted and sang. And we ended the evening at Murnik’s Cafeteria for hot chocolate and doughnuts.
The holiday season, however, didn’t come to our house until the week before Christmas. My father believed you could wear the holiday out by excessive celebration, so he kept it to as few days as possible. We went out and bought our tree, for example, just a day or two before Christmas. By then all the good ones were gone and we ended up with some of the scraggliest looking excuses for a tree that you can imagine. Once, after my brother Leo got his license to drive, Dad sent us three boys (Leo, George, and I) down to Levi Lashua’s lot near Central Fire Station in Fitchburg to pick out our tree. He gave us a dollar to pay for it and another fifty cents to celebrate with hot chocolates at Brook’s Drug Store next door to Levi’s. It was a cold and snowy night. Levi had little interest in leaving the shack where he sat with his wood burning stove, getting maximum heat from all the pieces of birch and pine trees he had trimmed off his customers’ purchases. “You can have any tree that’s still out there for seventy-five cents,” he said. “Except the ones with the red tags on the top. Those are sold and awaiting pick-up.” We went out to look for our prize. There wasn’t much to choose from. The trees left on the lot were small, bent, skinny, and generally pathetic looking. The only one we saw and really liked was the nice, big, full spruce tree – with a red tag on top. We knew it was sold to someone else, but we decided to take it anyway. We removed the tag, told Levi we had found one that would do, loaded it in the car, and took it home.
My father took one look at it and said, “How did you find such a nice tree as that this late in the season?” That did it. We broke down and told him the whole nefarious story. He wasn’t mad, just disappointed. Perhaps that was worse. “Now go take it back,” he said. “Tell Levi what you did and bring home an honest tree for the holiday.” We took it back. Leo told Levi the story and Levi was neither mad nor disappointed. He said he understood. He came out of the shack and helped us find a tree in the back that was only a little bit away from being acceptable. We brought it home. My father was pleased. The funny part of it was that when we got it up in the living room and decorated it with lights and tinsel and icicles, put Dad’s illuminated five pointed glass star on the top, and Mother’s celluloid Santa and sleigh on the branches, it was one of the best Christmas trees we ever had.
Nana Ware would come into the living room when we were done and join us for cocoa and cookies. She was blind, but she could hear and she could smell, and she could tell stories. She smiled as she said, “I can feel Christmas all around me.”
We would sit there. Talking about times past and looking forward to the big day coming soon. The big Crosley parlor radio would be playing Christmas carols in the background., as we talked. We would then ask Nana to tell us a story about one of her Christmas memories of when she was a girl, back home in Ireland. One time, she told us the story of Danny Mack, the Miser of Lixnaw:
The Miser of Lixnaw
“Quite the meanest man in Lixnaw was the wealthy landlord and farmer, Daniel McMahon. We called him Danny Mack behind his back. He was Irish enough, to be sure, but it was the English swells he catered to. He knew rightly enough where the money and power was. He couldn’t do enough for them. He treated all of us in the village like dirt beneath his heels. My father used to say, ‘He’s one of us, but he acts like one of them. That’s the worst of all.’ We all knew what he meant, and nobody went near Danny Mack unless, God forbid, they had to.
Mr. McMahon loaned out money at very high rates. If you borrowed a shilling today, you’d owe him two shillings next week. God forbid you couldn’t pay that back or he’d have the constable on you. Your furniture and kit would be in his barn within a fortnight. ‘The law is always the law,’ my father said, ‘but it’s not always fair and not always just. It’s not always the right thing to do.’ My mother said you can only hate someone you fear, and not everyone feared Danny Mack. My father said amen to that, but added, ‘it’s small consolation to be only hated by a few when the rest of the village despises you as well.’
Mr. McMahon lived like a miser too. His cottage was one of the most miserable in the village and he always looked unkempt and in need of a good wash. He had no wife or family to care for him. He was quite alone with his money, and though he had quite a lot if it too, they say he’d still jump right down a rabbit hole after a penny. Sometimes the children would bend down and hide behind the stonewalls when he passed along the village roads. Then they would call out their cruel rhyme:
‘Dan, Dan, the dirty old man.
Washed his face in the frying pan.
Combed his hair with the leg of the chair.
Dan, Dan the dirty old man.’
Then they’d scurry away laughing before he could recognize who they were. Most often he’d grab a rock or stick and fling it after them with a curse.
Of course, I didn’t know much of all this at the time. I was just a little girl of nine or ten in the parish school; this would have been around 1870. Mr. McMahon was just one more poor soul I’d see winding his way through the streets on my way to church or school.
One day near Christmas, the parish priest gave us a special assignment. We were to come next time with a story from one of our family or friends about their favorite color. What was it and why did they like it? It was a good question, and could have been a lot of fun, but I was small and busy. I forgot about it altogether in the holiday preparations going on. It wasn’t until I was on my way to parish school with my friends that I remembered the homework task. I had not done my assignment. I had not asked anyone my question. Fr. Kavanaugh would not like that, and it would go hard for me at home as well.
I was walking along the road, wondering what would become of me, when I looked up and walking toward me was Mr. McMahon himself. I had an idea.
‘Good morning, Mr. McMahon,’ I said cheerfully. ‘Tis a fine day. And would ye have a moment for a question?’
He looked at me warily. ‘And what question would the likes of ye be having for the likes of me?’ he asked.
‘It’s for school, Mr. McMahon. I was supposed to ask a family member or friend to tell me their favorite color and why they like it. I was hoping I could ask ye my question.’
‘Oh,’ he said, looking at me suspiciously, ‘am I your friend then?’
‘No sir,’ I told him. ‘I forgot to ask my family and friends and I’ll get into trouble if I go there without my lesson. I thought I would ask ye.’
He laughed at that. ‘All right, child,’ he said, ‘I’ll be answering your question. My favorite color is … orange.’
Now I thought he was joking me. Orange was the color of the British, and the Irish who supported them. The Orangemen called themselves The Ascendancy, and had little to do with the likes of us. But it was an answer, and the only answer I had to carry with me. I said, ‘Oh, like the fruit!’
‘And what would you know about the fruit, child? Have you ever tasted an orange?’
‘No sir, but I have heard about them and they are soft and juicy and sweet.’
‘Aye, they are that,’ he said, falling into step beside me. ‘I go to Dublin now and again on my business, and I’ll have one there. They grow them on the islands near Italy, you know’ he continued, and they have them there for sale in the city markets well into the winter months. I like them for their taste and their rarity. It is a special treat for me to have an orange when I’m in one of the big cities.’
By this time we were near the school. I thanked Mr. McMahon for his time and for talking with me. I was happy that I could now make my report. Mr. McMahon waved me goodbye and into the class I went. I made a good report in class that day. The priest was shocked that I had interviewed Mr. Mack. He said it was unusual – but a good thing to have the views of different people. Mr. Mack, he commented, half under his breath, was certainly a different person.
Well, I told my parents what I had done. My father was amused. My mother warned me against talking to people I didn’t know very well. She added, ‘It does show that there is a little good in everyone.’ My father harrumphed at that. He said, ‘Well, maybe Mr. Mack will get a bit of time out of the sulfur pit that awaits him in the next life.’
The story doesn’t end there,’’ Nana said. “It was a while later, on Christmas morning, when there was a knock on our cottage door. My mother opened it and found no one there. On the doorstep was a bright cloth tied with a bit of twine. ‘What is this?’ she said, bringing it inside and undoing the knots. ‘Mary, child,’ she said, ‘I believe Father Christmas has brought ye this from your new friend.’
And there, inside the cloth, was my very first orange.”
Above is an excerpt from Ed McManus’ book, “The Nana in the Chair and the Tales She Told” (AuthorHouse 2003, Red Roof Press 2006)