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Across the fields — and the decades — to midnight mass

20 December 2019

Miranda France recalls Christmases growing up in her father’s rectory


Midnight Mass by Frits Thaulow (1847-1906)

Midnight Mass by Frits Thaulow (1847-1906)

IF YOU have ever shifted uncomfortably during a Christmas sermon, wondering how much longer the homily will last, or how the turkey’s doing, or why your breath is forming small frozen clouds in the air, spare a thought for the priest’s child, who may be sitting in the pew in front, silently agonising over the sight of her father in a surplice, and fervently willing him not to say anything embarrassing about love — or his family.

At Christmas time, that is a forlorn hope. For those of us lucky enough to have families, the festive season is about spending time with them, and it is all too tempting for the preacher to make a jocular reference to his or her own brood, to paint a picture of them eagerly opening presents and arguing over the television. His eye (in my case it was a he) may even fall fondly on the family gathered below the pulpit. For the over-sensitive teenager, that can be an excruciating experience.

As vicar’s daughters go, I admit that I wasn’t one of the easiest. At home in the 1980s, I could be controversial at the dinner table, and sometimes had visiting relatives choking on their sprouts.

My father generously took these provocations in good part; he himself was not wedded to doctrine. He didn’t think it was important to believe in the Virgin birth or biblical miracles, and thought it unlikely that Christ was even born in winter, because the sheep were still in the fields.

For him, doubt was intrinsic to faith, something not to be denied but explored as part of an enriching relationship with God. Some of his great friends were atheists, and there would be spirited conversations about the existence of the soul at meal times.

I WAS in my late teens before I realised what a good preacher my father was. His weekly addresses were mini lectures on theology and humanity. He was interested in science and philosophy, and fascinated by the experience of being alive at a time when so much was being discovered about the mind and about the universe.

One of his sermons considered what the psychological effects might be on humanity if space travel were to discover that there was no other intelligent life in our galaxy. Over the years, I watched him speak in a succession of country churches, often to tiny congregations whose members were not always appreciative.

“Your father is very clever,” people sometimes said to me, not necessarily meaning it as a compliment. “The sermon was too difficult today,” a more forthright parishioner used to scold him. Others found his preaching enlightening, and the three sermons that he gave one Good Friday became the basis of a book The Paradox of Guilt, published in 1967.

ALAMYA Christmas carol service

His first parish was in Yorkshire, and later he was Chaplain of Essex University at a time when it was convulsed by student protests. Increasingly, though, he grew disillusioned with the Church of England, and, at the end of the 1970s, he gave up his ministry to be a farmer.

Farming turned out to have its own frustrations, but at least then the weather was to blame rather than bishops, with whom my father seemed often to disagree. He was a passionate man whose response to problems was sometimes to kick them. You can kick a tractor wheel or a sticking door. You can’t kick a bishop and get away with it.

MY EARLIEST memory of Christmas morning is of lying under my parents’ bed, right in the middle with their hands straining to reach me from either side. Like a lot of small children, I thought it was a shame to let church get in the way of a day of celebration.

Being very shy, I particularly dreaded the moment when the children in the congregation would be invited to go into the vestry for Sunday school.

Part of me longed to join them — especially when I saw the little models of flat-roofed houses they made, like the ones in Jerusalem, and the mosaic pictures of Mary assembled from tiny pieces of coloured tissue paper — but I always opted to stay beside my mother, whose every utterance in church I knew by heart, especially that sad, compelling riddle: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

As I got older, I grew to appreciate the community spirit of parish worship. Without turning round, I could pick out the voices of different people in our village: Toby, the baritone, whose wife had left him for an estate agent; Sandra, who ran the shop, whose daughter irritated my parents by chewing gum when she came to the house collecting signatures for a sponsored run; Margaret, who had cut off all her hair when it became too difficult to manage and turned it into a wig.

The grandest family in the village used to genuflect when they came into church, then take a pew beneath memorials to generations of their ancestors. The choir comprised two warring sisters-in-law in their eighties, who hadn’t spoken to each other for more than 50 years. Nobody could remember what had sparked the feud, but, since they refused to sit together and neither would relinquish her place in the choir, my mother acted as a buffer by sitting between them, and so became the third chorister.

There is something deeply reassuring about the experience of worship in a small community. When you hear people speaking the same words week after week, you grow attuned to their peculiar tics and intonations, you know which voices will strain to reach higher notes, who can be relied on to carry the tune.

In our village, we sometimes attempted to sing the psalm, but the organist often gave us a note that was an octave too high. As the congregation travelled together towards that unattainable top note, there was almost a collective push to reach it as a team. That said, it was always a relief at Christmas to see that one parishioner’s daughter, a trained soprano, was visiting. That meant there would definitely be someone to handle the descant.

We would see the same troop of people throughout the season at other services and parties, or when they came to our house carolling. The height of Christmas excitement for me was walking through the snow to get to midnight mass, crunching across frozen fields, torches in hand. Village parties were true community events, with singing round pianos, and sometimes games that children and adults joined in together. You might see your doctor and solicitor there, the local publican and builder.

ALAMYMidnight Mass (1933) by Clarence Gagnon

Of course, there were tensions at Christmas, too. One year my mother bought a turkey that was too big for the oven, and my father tried kicking the tray, which buckled and got wedged in the runners. Another year, our dog ate some of the turkey, before it had even got as far as the oven, and then threw it up in the kitchen.

I wasn’t allowed to watch the Top of the Pops Christmas special, an injustice that still rankles. At some point on Christmas Day, one of us would storm off in a huff, but, since all the upstairs rooms were freezing cold, it wasn’t long before we were lured back down to the sitting room, a roaring fire and Morecambe and Wise on TV.

AND then there was the John problem. To be specific, John, chapter one, verse one. My father hated it to be read wrongly, and it nearly always was. As we watched the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge, one Christmas Eve, there was a palpable tension as the moment for the climactic ninth lesson approached. The Provost made his way to the lectern and began to read:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

“Did you hear that?”, my father asked. “The word was with God, and the word was God. They always get the stresses wrong. What is important here? It’s not was or with, it’s God! It’s the Word!”

The words were deeply important to him, and he loved the Book of Common Prayer so much that he made 1662 his pin code for everything, not expecting would-be burglars also to be churchmen.

My father was in the middle of delivering a sermon, in fact, when we brought our son to spend his first Christmas with the family. He was born on Christmas Eve 1998, and, a year and a day later, we took him to Norfolk. Rather than go to the rectory, we went straight to the church where my father was officiating. I’ll never forget how my father’s eyes lit up to see his new grandson arrive, bundled in blankets.

The congregation, swathed in icy clouds of their own breath, turned to see us come in and smiled. What could be more fitting? A baby on Christmas Day: love and family combined — and a daughter finally old enough not to be embarrassed by either.

Miranda France is the author of books, including Bad Times in Buenos Aires and That Summer at Hill Farm, and a translator from Spanish.

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