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Salute the happy morn?

The world and his or her partner come to midnight mass, but it is the congregation on Christmas morning that gives Richard Coles pause for thought

IN FINEDON, where I am parish priest, midnight mass is still one of the busiest services of the year. Three hundred or so dutifully turn up from gable-ended houses in the gingerbread-stone posh end - from the Banjo, as our streets of social housing are called, from shift work in the anonymous warehouses along the A45, and from the Conservative Club, the Old Band Club, the Gladstone Working Men's Club, and the Bell Inn (estd 1042).

Many of them are still fairly familiar with what we are doing, unfazed by the business with the crib or thurible. They are at home with candlelight, and with the trickier carols, some even remembering - with tremendous gusto - the descants they learned at school. Afterwards, they disappear into the night, feeling, as I felt, that faint conspiratorial pleasure at participating in clandestine acts of worship.

But the real conspiracy, the real clandestine act of worship, is not midnight mass, but Christmas morning. People might think that Christmas morning would be one of the busiest of the year, but, here, it is not.

Perhaps, because of the relentless anticipation generated from bonfire night onwards, we peak early, on Christmas Eve, with our "living nativity" in the afternoon for the children, and midnight mass for the grown-ups. Perhaps it is the logistical necessities of the day, quite apart from growing indifference to Christianity, which have edged church out of the itinerary.

My Christmas Day timetable begins with Morning Prayer at seven - solo and perfunctory, I'm afraid, after four hours of sleep. The eight-o'clock follows, unusually well attended here with a congregation of between 30 and 40. But, this Christmas morn, Christians seem slow to awake and salute.

But Neil, the churchwarden, who does the early turn, is up and about. The altar is dressed, the candles are trimmed, and, once again, I thank God for calling him to this ministry. He is not only unfailingly reliable and diligent: he is also a builder, and will ascend ladders to do impossible things with light fixtures, and descend ladders to do impossible things with boilers, without demur, unlike his priest, who functions only at sea level.

BOB the server is also here, again unfailingly reliable and diligent, and we wordlessly fall into our routine, except the pews are much emptier than usual, and our routine is interrupted for some communion-wafer mathematics. As I do the headcount, I have a moment's sober realisation that our hard core is getting smaller, death having undone two of my most faithful eight-o'clockers in the past year. I try not to lapse into actuarial speculation about the next.

Those who are here, present and correct, prefer the quiet of the eight o'clock - hymnless, and childless - and are usually of an age where it is preferred to get the business of the day done before nine.

Their expectation, and the custom of the house, sometimes strikes me as being at odds with the character of the festival. Unto us a child is born, king of all creation; but it is business as usual at St Mary's, Finedon, as far as our eight-o'clockers are concerned. The pulling of crackers and wearing of hats is for later.

The old faithful, I think, look to the church to give a pattern to their lives, a sense of the passing year, and, indeed, the passing of their own years. They do not need or desire fireworks to help them do this, rather the formulae of words and actions that, in subtly altered forms, have been with them since childhood, learned in the parish's boys' school and girls' school, from curates whose names are forgotten, but not the catechism they taught.

IT IS also a service where we try to keep a measure of stillness and silence, helped by the wonderful play of light in the clerestory, which seems to happen quite this way only around the winter solstice. It is silver gilt, unlike summer light, which is more golden, and falls across the 18th-century organ case in a gallery at the west end of the church, picking out the arms of Queen Anne, from whose private chapel at Windsor it came.

I think of all the incumbents who have preceded me since 1350, and have watched the same play of light as Christmas morning dawned, weather and the world's unresting change permitting.

At the end of the service, I go to stand just beyond the porch and parvise, and have a minute alone, while people gather their hats and gloves. It is one of my favourite moments of the day, to stand under the gargoyles, looking down across the churchyard, past lichen-covered gravestones, and 1000-year-old yews, into the hall's park, laid out by Repton in the 1740s.

There is a huge dead oak just beyond the ha-ha, which always makes me think of Caspar David Friedrich, and, lest we surrender entirely to nostalgia, the smell of Weetabix, a 24-hour, 365-day operation, blows in from Burton Latimer, two miles down the road.

The first departing faithful pass by, to whom I wish Merry Christmas, and note how quickly it has come round again. I think of my grandmother, who lived to be 101, and told me that when you are over 90, you go to bed on Christmas night and wake up to find it's Christmas morning. That same year, she thanked me for the pashmina I gave her, but said that she hadn't opened it, because she was not likely to get much wear out of it, and I could have it back when she died and give it to someone else. And so it came to pass.

AFTER the eight-o'clock, I have a cup of coffee on the children's table with Jane, the churchwarden on the late shift. Jane, for whom I also give thanks daily, has readings for readers, and intercessions for intercessors. She also has a strategy for child management, which can be taxing, because we have no sound-proofed space for our children, which can lead to unchristian feelings when the twins decide to have a lusty shout out while the rest of us are trying to attend to the silent promptings of the Spirit.

Fun Bags are available, full of Christmas-themed materials, and wildly inflationary quantitative easing with chocolate coins is promised at the end. But we know that most of the children we see for Christmas we saw yesterday at the living nativity, a learning experience much enriched by the appearance among the three kings of Darth Vader wielding a light saber.

To add richness to the learning experience for grown-ups, Jonathan, our brilliant director of music, joins us, and we work out whether the choir will be strong enough in number to manage the "Hallelujah Chorus", which we love, not least because our organ was once played by Handel, or so the legend goes. And what better piece could we therefore perform with it on this most holy morning?

And it is here that we run into an inconvenient truth. While we are all geared up to mark this second most important day in the Church's calendar, with bells and whistles and a general pushing out of boats, our congregation is not. Those who are around may well have attended at midnight, but many have gone away to spend Christmas with children, and grandchildren - the first generations of Finedonians who left to go to university and never came back. Or some of the better-heeled members of the congregation are in second homes in sunnier places.

I CHECK the figures, and see that last year, on Christmas Eve, we had about 70 at the living nativity, and 220 at midnight mass. At the eight-o'clock we had 24 - not bad; but at the main eucharist on Christmas morning we had 54. On a normal Sunday, we could double that.

Who were these attenders? There are some solid 9.30 regulars who never miss; there are some parents with children too small to stay up for midnight mass; but, judging by the haggard expressions of their mummies and daddies, they woke up not long after.

There are some posh townies, back from Islington and Putney, taking the grandchildren to see the grandparents in the country, the girls in dark coats with gold buttons, the boys in miniature jackets and ties. There are the local farmers and their families, in Sunday best, keepers of the tradition of Christmas-morning church, leaving their flocks in the fields, or - more likely - their winter barley.

And there are the non-classifieds, the Christmas walk-ins, the unrecognised: the Romanian who works in a packhouse, far from home, who tells me how he would kill his grandfather's pig on St Ignatz's Day, and gets choked with homesickness; the new divorcee, on her own this Christmas for the first time in 25 years; the man in his 70s, last in, and first out, whom I have never seen before, but guess to be a priest; and then there is the person I don't see.

Every Christmas, I cannot help thinking that I am watching Christianity become one degree more marginal to people's lives.

This year, when we have had more explaining to do than usual, as the Archbishop of Canterbury put it, I feel it more acutely. Can we recover with confidence our place at the centre of our communities, by reaching out more readily, more intelligibly, to those who are retreating further into the margins and beyond?

Or do we need to recover, with confidence, the irreducible weirdness of what we do, to restore to the gospel its mystery and power, by rediscovering it ourselves? These are not easy questions to answer, but I do not think that we choose between them.

I think that our choices lie somewhere in the configuration of these non-classifieds, in their different distances and proximities to the crib, still steady with light and silence in the bewildering son et lumière that cannot quite displace or replace it.

A happy and holy Christmas to all.

The Revd Richard Coles is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary the Virgin, Finedon, in Peterborough diocese.

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