Home > Called Out of Darkness(10)

Called Out of Darkness(10)
Author: Anne Rice

The forty days of Lent equaled the forty days that Jesus had fasted in the desert, when He'd been tempted by Satan.

Fasting, giving something up, doing penance, performing a prescribed penance, were part of the Catholic way to be good.

We were all keenly conscious of the progress of Lent towards Holy Week and the special celebrations involved.

The Stations of the Cross were said every Friday in Lent.

Palm Sunday began Holy Week with joy as this was the day that Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem to delirious crowds of people who cried, "Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord." People carried palm branches when they did this, and they laid down their palm branches for the donkey carrying the Lord on the road.

Then came Spy Wednesday when Judas had gone off to betray Our Lord, and Holy Thursday on which the Lord's Supper occurred. On that day, as I recall, we received only Holy Communion, and there was no Mass. Legions of people trooped into church, went directly to kneel at the Communion rail, and received the Host.

On Good Friday, the day of Our Lord's death on the cross, there was no Mass either. One could go to the Stations of the Cross on that day, or go to longer more complex three-hour services during which all the lights were put out in the church at the moment that Our Lord actually expired. On Good Friday, people came to church all day long simply "to kiss the cross." Again the multitudes made their way to the Communion rail and knelt there, and the priest with the altar boy came along, the priest holding out a crucifix for each person to kiss. The altar boy or the priest wiped off the crucifix after each kiss.

It was our custom to visit nine churches on Good Friday and kiss the cross in each. One of the pure delights of living in New Orleans was that one could easily walk to nine Catholic churches. Indeed one had choices. I remember loving this devotion, in part because of the singular beauty of each church, and the special experience of entering and encountering a distinct sanctuary and a unique crucifix, and I also loved the fun of the walking on the way.

On Easter Sunday, we attended High Mass with magnificent choral music sung in Latin. The "Gloria" was definitely the most beautiful hymn. Even today at regular Sunday Mass, I love singing this hymn and will sing every verse of it, even if the cantor is only inviting us to sing the refrain. Of course today we are singing it in English, but let me give a taste of the Latin:

Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.

Laudamus te.

Benedicimus te.

Adoramus te.

Glorificamus te.

This means "Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace to men of good will. We praise Thee; we bless Thee; we worship Thee; we glorify Thee."

In the Catholic Church of today, it goes like this: Glory to God in the highest,

And peace to His people on earth.

Lord, God, heavenly King,

Almighty God and Father,

We worship You, we give You thanks, We praise You for your glory.

It goes on and I could go on, but as I am talking now about New Orleans let me return to that theme.

Christmas in the time of my school days was even more sumptuous than Easter. In the early years, we didn't keep Advent, or the penitential four weeks before Christmas.

So the Christmas Manger scene was erected quite early in each church, and it stood there resplendent for all to see for quite a number of days. I recall spectacular Manger scenes with very simply gorgeous life-size statues, and one particular statue of the Infant Jesus that couldn't help but fill me with happiness when I saw it. One can still buy a replica of this Baby Jesus today. He has dark wavy hair, quite a lot for a newborn, bright glistening eyes, and a lovely smile. His arms are extended and one of his knees is slightly raised. The baby looks absolutely overjoyed to be alive with us, to be one of us, to be a little person amongst human beings.

These Manger scenes were usually surrounded by Christmas greens and they smelled wonderful. They were usually built to one far side of the altar, but behind the Communion rail, so one could go up to the rail to kneel before them. And I suspect churches vied with one another for the most spectacular scene. There might be a structure to the stable or some other architectural feature. There were always statues of wooly haggard beast-laden shepherds and of the stalwart ox and the inevitable donkey who'd been there, and elegant statues of gowned angels with huge feathery white wings.

Mary knelt beside the Infant Jesus with her head bowed, almost always under a blue veil. Joseph, portrayed as an old man on account of tradition, knelt opposite, and sometimes he held his staff with one hand.

What I remember was the utter sweetness of the statues, the sublime scent of the greens, and other glittering decorative elements, all of this uplifting my spirits and filling me with a pure happiness that I associated with the entire season. The Manger scene remained up until January 6, which was the Feast of the Epiphany, or the day on which the Magi - the men from the East - came to visit the Divine Child. Then the exotic and detailed statues of these three wise men and sometimes statues of their beasts and their servants would be added to the tableaux. There was always at least one camel. And I think there was usually a little boy.

Of course we had Manger scenes in our individual classrooms at school, as well as Christmas trees, and we had Manger scenes in our homes under our living room Christmas trees as well. And the people of New Orleans constructed enormous and elaborate outdoor Manger scenes which drew crowds during the evenings by car and on foot.

As I recall there was a house on the corner of Washing-ton and St. Charles that always erected a breathtaking Manger scene, and another house on Louisiana Avenue and St.

Charles that erected a huge one as well. These were highly elaborate affairs, and it was fun to walk along the avenue in the evening and visit these particular Mangers as well as any others that people had erected to be seen.

One year one of our teachers created imaginative little Christmas worlds in the deep windowsills of our classroom.

I remember that this sister laid down cotton for snow and put down little drugstore hand mirrors to make lakes in the snow. I suppose there were tiny little figures everywhere, rushing and skating, but I only remember that I loved these little universes and I thought this sister a wonderful person for having done this. Sisters were proprietary about their classrooms; each classroom had individual paintings and special touches, and sometimes even special collections of old books.

Even Christmas shopping was part of this festive and holy time of year. For me, it was a matter of roaming five-and-dime stores on Canal Street for the simple little presents I could afford. But I well remember the Christmas carols playing in every store I entered, and the gorgeous Christmas windows of the fine stores, Maison Blanche and D. H. Holmes.

It seems to me in retrospect that the department stores and the dime stores did an excellent job of extending the "sacred space" of Christmas in those days. And I sometimes wonder whether for people of no religion, this might have been the only sacred space they knew. When people rail now against the "commercial nature of Christmas," I'm always conflicted and unable to respond. Because I think those who would banish commercialism from the holiday fail to understand how precious and comforting the shop displays and music can be.

I recall a saturation at Christmastime. It seemed the whole world was celebrating the birth of Christ. We were singing hymns in the classroom, and in church. We heard them everywhere we went. It was surely my favorite religious season. I remember sitting in the living room of our house, by myself, with only the lights of the Christmas tree for illumination, and looking lovingly at our tiny Manger scene with the devoted Virgin, the tiny Child, and St. Joseph at His side. We always went to Midnight Mass on Christmas, and Midnight Mass was unfailingly magnificent. True, I do remember the presents and caring much too much about them, but what I remember more than anything else was the immensity of the feast, and the awesome sense of meaning that permeated every aspect of it. Yes, we wanted gifts, but we wanted to give gifts as well. There was nothing like Christmas. Not even Mardi Gras exceeded Christmas in importance, and my child's mind sought some understanding of the mystery I was experiencing in the haunting Celtic carols we sang.

In my later years, bleak years, years without God, there were two films shown on television every Christmas which became of remarkable importance to me. One was It's a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed; and the other was Scrooge, Dickens' Christmas Carol, starring Alastair Sim. Year after year I waited anxiously for these films, and sometimes they were the only Christmas films offered on national television, and I cannot help but wonder how important they must have been to people everywhere who were trying to regain that deep mystery of Christmas, in a world that no longer perhaps believed in it, or was determined to blot it out. Both films are as popular as ever today.

It's a Wonderful Life seems to be about American ambivalence to Christmas, and the desperate need to reaffirm the values of the season, no matter how bleak and impoverished the holiday season has become. As for Scrooge, he is Dickens' great and masterly judgment on the miser and swindler in each of us. In our house, when we gather for Christmas, we still watch both these films. It is a judgment on us as a nation that we seem unable to produce more films of this caliber and meaning, especially given the dazzling new cinematic resources at our command. Some years, Christmas simply doesn't happen on American television. And it doesn't happen in the movies either. This is a source of anxiety and disappointment to me. I fear our loss of sacred space and time. I dream of making beautiful and profound and magnificent Christmas films.

Back to childhood: as I grew older, somebody or some group of people in the church decided that we should observe the Advent season, and so the cribs could not be placed in the churches until Christmas Eve. Because in America "nothing is more over than Christmas," this meant that the cribs didn't command anybody's attention for very long. The radiant Christ Child came and went in a matter of a few days. This was a terrible loss. However, the celebration of Advent was an interesting idea in itself, involving an Advent wreath with four candles for the Sundays of Advent.

But I mourned the days when the Manger scenes went up early and the sheer joy of the Christmas season went on for a long, long time.

After January 6, children in the Irish Channel and possibly in other neighborhoods too gave King cake parties. A cake was baked with a tiny statue of a king in it; the person at the party who got the piece of cake with the king in it had to give the next party. I associated this entirely with the Feast of Epiphany, but as Christmas season ran into Mardi Gras season, somehow the King cake parties became intimately associated with Mardi Gras, and King cakes are now sold all over New Orleans, and sent all over the world from New Orleans, at Mardi Gras time.

King cakes are huge oval cakes laid out on stiff cardboard, and covered with sticky brightly colored icing. There is nothing so sweet and sticky as a King cake. The cakes have tiny babies hidden in them now, not kings.

The other festival that was almost equal to Christmas in its splendor was the festival of the Virgin Mary in the month of May. Each parish in New Orleans and each school managed its tribute to the Virgin Mary in its own way.

In our parish, the procession and the May Crowning came at the end of the month. On the evening of the May Crowning all the schoolchildren assembled to walk in ranks through the streets of the parish, along with thousands of parishioners. If you were a little girl, you wore your old white Communion dress for at least three years. Girls who'd made their Confirmation wore their white Confirmation dresses each year for as long as they could. The members of various organizations carried statues in the procession. When I was in high school, the Legion of Mary carried the statue of Our Lady of Fatima in the procession, and my sister, who was a member, walked along beside the bier saying her rosary with the other high school girls.

The scent of flowers was everywhere during these processions.

I can't imagine how long this procession was, and I don't remember any set route. But it took us all through the packed streets of the Irish Channel, and I remember one year noticing that house after house had its own glorious shrine to the Virgin in a front window or on a front porch. People came down in the dusk to say their rosaries with us as we passed.

I'm sure we sang hymns too. But I don't recall singing hymns until we all returned to the enormous school yard for the crowning of the Virgin there.

This was done with a life-size statue; and I can recall standing with thousands of people in the yard, amid so many white lilies that the air was drenched with their perfume.

There seemed to be banks and banks of lilies before the Virgin.

The priest would speak a sermon, sometimes a long one, and then the May Court of several teenage girls in lovely evening gowns would prepare for the crowning itself. One girl was always chosen to put the crown onto the Virgin's head. Two traditional hymns were always sung. One was tender and almost sad:

On this day, O beautiful Mother, On this day we give thee our love.

Near thee, Madonna, fondly we hover, Trusting thy gentle care to prove.

The second hymn, we sang with considerably more spirit, and it was during this hymn that Our Lady was in fact crowned with a crown of woven flowers.

Bring flowers of the rarest

Bring flowers of the fairest

From garden and woodland and hillside and dale, Our full hearts are swelling,

Our glad voices telling

The praise of the loveliest rose of the dale!

refrain:

O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today!

Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today, Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May.

When I went to Holy Name of Jesus School uptown, we had a May Crowning every school day in the basement, right after the noon recess. Each grade had its turn to crown the Blessed Mother, with the same traditional hymns and certain prayers that were always said.

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