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The Miracle Of Christmas


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I immediately loved Great Aunt Victoria: not that she was in the slightest bit loveable.


There she stood; a small mountain of magisterial black crinoline and lace, wearing the sort of hat normally reserved for state funerals and carrying a furled umbrella. The thin, tight lips, pallid skin, aristocratic demeanour and colonial appearance only served to reinforce her intimidating presence. Her Great Nephew, John, introduced my friends David, Jonathan and I to his Great Aunt: a grizzled, liver-spotted hand moving towards each in turn, as she bared large, yellowed, tombstone-like teeth in a threateningly carnivorous manner. As the ghastly fingers moved towards me, I felt the overwhelming compulsion to turn and run, but somehow, I found the courage to briefly nip the tip of an index finger and smile politely, before re-coiling in horror. For her part, she nodded regally as each hand pressed the clammy flesh; her eyes cold and penetrating.


Great aunt Victoria, it seemed, had arrived two days earlier than expected for the family Christmas re-union; her hapless Great Nephew having little option but to bring her with him for the day. Now physically frail, Great Aunt Victoria was strong…… terrifyingly so. In the way that she spoke to her Great Nephew, it was obvious that she clearly regarded his social status as being only slightly above that of a domestic servant, in spite of the fact that he was a qualified medical doctor and only six months short of his fortieth birthday.


As Christmas Eve’s went, it could not have been more seasonal; a clear blue sky and brilliant sunlight having not the slightest effect on precariously dangling icicles, and the stillness enlivened by the occasional flake of snow which threatened blizzard conditions later. The people on the streets; heavily wrapped in multi-layered clothing, scurried past like shoppers in the markets of Moscow; happy to queue for a solitary, last-minute seasonal-present or a jar of forgotten Cranberry Sauce. Close by, an old man roasted chestnuts in a charcoal oven, rubbing his hands and stamping his feet. All around were Christmas trees and plastic images of Santa Claus, (each bearing the label ‘Made in China’); illuminated decorations festooning the narrow streets and fairy-lights twinkling through opaque shop windows. From many traditional shops came the smells of freshly baked bread; of cooked meats, aromatic cakes and warm mice-pies. Indeed, but for the passing motor-vehicles, it was a scene which must have been repeated each year ever since the middle ages. York was always a beautiful city, but at Christmas it is an enchanted place.


Although only a few hundred yards to the “Bishop’s Mitre” inn, Great Aunt Victoria’s eyes stared horribly over the top of her pince-nez spectacles, when she was informed that we would making our way there on foot. Reaching a cobbled street, she extended a hand to each side, as her Great Nephew and I rushed to support her teetering magnificence; like two coronation page-boys, dutifully and unquestioningly serving their liege. Making the most of the ordeal, Great Aunt Victoria moaned pitifully as her inappropriately tiny feet wobbled across the cobblestones. At each junction, she would look in both directions, perhaps expecting a rickshaw to miraculously appear. Unfortunately, whilst bicycle-rickshaws are often seen in the narrow streets of York, they tend to disappear to wherever it is that bi-cycle rickshaws disappear, once the tourist season ends.


The reason for out visit to York on Christmas Eve was that of attending the annual ‘Service of Nine Lessons and Carols’, where it would be “our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels: in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem.”


That was our official reason, but in reality, we went there to enjoy a good Christmas lunch, bump into old friends, have a few bevies, enjoy good company, listen to a splendid choir and then hear the final organ voluntary thundering out on the Minster organ.


Before the seasonal and musical delights of that great and mysterious edifice, we entered through the low doorway of the Inn: the subdued strains of a Christmas carol playing over the loudspeakers. David immediately identified the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, which in York, seemed to amount to downright impertinence. All eyes fell upon Great Aunt Victoria as she regally entered the dining-room, undid her outer garments, awaited assistance from her Great Nephew and handed me the furled umbrella. Drawing a chair away from the large oak table, we invited Great Aunt Victoria to take her place at the head of it, from which position she could hold court over her minions. Stiff and formal, she sat there gazing over the top of her glasses, and as the menu was passed to her, she commanded, “Please read it to me.”


With great deliberation, and anxious that he would not have to repeat the ordeal, her Great Nephew read out the list of available dishes, which seemed to include a majority of edible fish, beast and bird.


“Thank you,” Great Aunt Victoria said indifferently.


After a pause, she cleared her throat and announced, “I think I will take the guinea-fowl in almond sauce.”


We looked each to the other: a certain telegraphise perhaps suggesting that not one of us had ever seen a guinea-fowl, let alone taste one. The remaining company seemed quite content with turkey, stuffing and Christmas pudding; which is what we ordered ‘en bloc” without further ceremony: surely the very reason for the existence of ‘Traditional Christmas lunch?’ When the food arrived, all eyes fell upon the guinea-fowl, which looked for all the world like embryonic Turkeys. Great aunt Victoria attacked them with the sort of careful, calculated precision normally the preserve of brain-surgeons, whilst we just tucked into our meals rather more robustly. Great Aunt Victoria said little as she delicately chewed the tiny morsels of meat, but the beady eyes behind the pince-nez missed nothing: the occasional fright of her magnified eyes enough to keep us in check, in spite of the fact that we were drinking considerable quantities of alcohol.


As the conversation grew more animated and boisterous, Great Aunt Victoria listened but said nothing.


Quite out of the blue, she cleared her throat noisily again, and with what seemed like a whole plum-pudding in her mouth, said, “I can never quite understand why it is that York-shire people pronounce the vowel ‘a’ incorrectly. Do you all take a pride in mispronouncing things?”


There was visible shock, as all stopped eating and all eyes fell upon Great Aunt Victoria: now once more picking the tiny morsels of meat from the bones of the guinea-fowl, as if nothing had happened. Although David audibly growled, not a flicker of emotion could be seen on the faces of the assembled company, but Great Aunt Victoria had effectively declared a state of war.


Determined that Great Aunt Victoria was not going to spoil the occasion, we chatted of this and that, and music in particular, but any attempt to include Great Aunt Victoria in the conversation, met with the same lofty, icy response. In all the good-humoured banter, we quite lost track of time, until the bells of the Minster began to resound across the city.



I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play

And wild and sweet

The words repeat,

Of 'Peace on earth, good will to men!'


And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along

The unbroken song,

Of 'Peace on earth, good will to men!'


From “Christmas Bells”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Sharply reminded of our reason for being in York, we gathered our things, dressed Great Aunt Victoria, paid the bill and made ready our departure. Save for the agonised footsteps of Great Aunt Victoria, our happy progress down the narrow streets, between the crooked, timber-framed buildings, had that joyful element of the pilgrim’s progress, as the imposing Minster loomed into view. The shopkeepers wearily drew the blinds, or turned ancient keys in equally ancient locks; a brief respite in the commercial madness of Christmas, which would soon become the January Sales. Not only summoned by the bells, we were drawn like moths to the lights within, each shining and twinkling like precious jewels through medieval stained-glass: first ruby red, then emerald green and then deep, cobalt blue. As we approached the Great West Door, we joined the happy throng of those who came to welcome the Christ Child.


Taken by surprise as we waited in the rapidly freezing queue of people, I instinctively bowed to the man in the heavy cape walking briskly past; wishing him a “Happy Christmas.”


“Happy Christmas to you,” said the caped figure with the cheery smile, which then moved briskly away.


“Who was that?” My cousin David asked.


“That was the deputy head-cheese,” I proclaimed.


“Who?” David puzzled.


“Dr David,” I replied.


“Good God!” My cousin replied.


Pausing briefly, I replied, “No, not God…merely His Grace.”


“Good Lord!” My cousin replied, with greater accuracy.


With that, we entered the Minster: that riot of soaring arches, tracery, stone-carving, medieval grotesques, stained-glass and oak-beams; further beautified by exquisite flower arrangements, an enormous crib and possibly the largest Christmas-Tree to be found anywhere outside London and Trafalgar Square in particular. A quiet murmur could be heard, as over a thousand or more souls conversed in hushed-tones: the Christmas story about to unfold, just as it had for generation after generation: from Latin to the vernacular and in many accents.


Seated as close to the great Choir Screen as we could possibly get, the sound of the organ fell ever more subdued; the following silence shattered by the hour chime of the great astronomical-clock.


Then came the moment, as a “still small voice” began to sing the words, “Once in Royal David’s City.”


The voice was flawless and confident; belying the solitary terror of the moment, following which, the choir sang and processed down the great nave, singing joyfully and robustly. As the organ thundered and two thousand people sang with gusto, our Christmas had begun.


Till ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day -

A voice, a chime,

A chant sublime,

Of 'Peace on earth, good will to men!'


From “Christmas Bells”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


The music could not have been better, and in between the beautifully read lessons, the choir sang those lovely carols: both old and new, but each special in its own way.

The congregational Christmas hymns were the usual ones: “The first Nowell,” Ding Dong merrily!” and “O little town of Bethlehem;” all sung with great enthusiasm, by a congregation brought to heel by the strident bark of the infamous Tuba Mirabilus. The irregularities of the Mirabilus were only matched by the strident wailing noises centred around, and possibly emanating from within, Great Aunt Victoria. Never once looking at the words, she was not for a moment dissuaded from singing each and every word; whether marked ‘Choir Only” or “Men Only.” Great Aunt Victoria being very old, no-one thought to draw her attention to the ‘Order of Service.’


As we sat for the next lesson, read by a local dignitary, we began to chuckle to ourselves as his strong Yorkshire accent echoed around that holy space.


“An’ it cem’ ta pass in those days, that ther’ went owt a degree from Cæsar Awgustus, that all t’world should bi taxed. An’ all went to be taxed, every one into ‘is own city…..”


Instinctively, all eyes turned to gaze at Great Aunt Victoria, as she sharply drew breath and then visibly bristled as the lesson unfolded. Clearly offended by the density of the Yorkshire accent, Great Aunt Victoria looked at each of us in turn with a haughty expression, and then tut-tutted her disapproval, even before the end of the lesson.


The word “dreadful” could be heard coming from her lips quite clearly, even as the reader uttered the words, “Thanks be to God”.


Great Aunt Victoria cast a savage look as, with heaving shoulders, we tried to suppress laughter, but clearly, she, like her regal forebear, was distinctly “not amused.”


Staring at my feet, I thought silently to myself.


And in despair I bowed my head;

'There is no peace on earth,' I said,

'For hate is strong

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men!'


From “Christmas Bells”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Once more settled into a more appropriate, if rather uncomfortable demeanor, it was David who stabbed at the ‘Order of Service’ with a gleeful, slightly manic and, (if the truth be known), a slightly inebriate grin, as we approached the next congregational hymn, “In the bleak mid-winter.”


A ripple of excitement passed left to right among our midst; each of us grinning with unrestrained joy as the words of the last verse were pointed out.


Enough for him, whom Cherubim

Worship night and day,

A breastful of milk

And a mangerful of hay;

Enough for him, whom angels

Fall down before,

The ox and ass and camel

Which adore.


There was tacit understanding and comprehension as we blinked at the penultimate line: those familiar and oft altered words which had so delighted whole generations of young choristers; their particular care and delight being always to sing “The oxen’s arse.”


Knowing glances and slow, smug nods were enough, for the elephant-trap was sprung, and Great Aunt Victoria was about to meet her come-uppance in the north-south pronunciation stakes. Whether it was the schoolboy snorts and giggles, or the gleefully exchanged grins, we could never know, but Great Aunt Victoria sensed that something was going on, and quite likely, that she was the reason for it: her eyes revolving hideously, this way and then that.


As we launched into that last verse, it was with a sense of schoolboy eagerness; our voices raised louder still and louder, as the offending word loomed large. To a man, our gloriously combined tenor rang out the words “The Ox and Ass,” with the proper long vowel sound to emphasise the point. At that same instant, another, more strident voice, (singing a spectacularly bad unison descant), sang the words loud and clear above those of our own……”The ox and mule.”


We had been out-flanked completely: now awaiting chastisement like so many naughty children lined up outside the office of the headmistress.


Then it happened…..a great miracle…before our very eyes!


Try as she may, Great Aunt Victoria could not hide the red-flush which now filled her cheeks, the involuntary snort which came from her nostrils and the tittering sound which came from her lips. Looking over the top of her pince-nez, her eyes twinkling as she chuckled, and with the knowing smile of the governess, she wished us, “Happy Christmas.”


A maiden had brought forth the tiny child within, and the child smiled gleefully as it pinched our noses. The moment was wonderful, magical and poignant: the joy beyond measure. Without hesitation, we each embraced Great Aunt Victoria in turn: kissing the once pallid cheeks, which now glowed ruddy and warm and welcoming.


As the Archbishop gave his blessing, and before the final strains of “O come all ye faithful,” I looked heavenward and smiled; silently reminded of the words:-


Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

'God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!

The wrong shall fail,

The right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to men!'


Christmas Bells

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow







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