Growing up Catholic, I rose through the ranks of the kids who got to go up by the altar -- boys only, in those days. I was an altar boy for many years, after which I served as a lector at Sunday Mass, and I even did a short stint one summer helping out the ladies of the Altar Society.
But before altar boy, there were two groups a lucky male youth could be part of, and I was in both of those, too. In third and fourth grade, there were the "red boys," a choir group that warmed up the crowd at Christmas midnight Mass. I did two hilarious tours of duty with that group -- even singing a solo one year.
But before the red boys, down in the ranks of the six- and seven-year-olds, there were the torchbearers. And that is where I made my debut on the holy side of the altar rail.
There were six torchbearers appointed for Christmas every year (who knows how they were selected), and the job was fairly simple. At midnight Mass, we bore lit candles on the ends of brass poles to lead the procession, right behind the older kid with the crucifix. We ended up in the sanctuary, where we stayed, candles lit, throughout most, if not all, of the service. It was what they called a "solemn high" Mass in those days -- all three of the parish priests celebrating, with just about all of it being sung, not spoken. We torchbearers got a close-up view of the placement of the statue of the infant Jesus in the manger, and of all the hocus pocus surrounding the sprinkling of the holy water and the burning of the incense. They were very big on the incense in those days.
Our garb that night was Pope-like: floor-length white robes, with a red sash around our waist and a red beanie on our head. There may have been a short cape around our shoulders, too, but it wasn't as fancy as what the red boys wore.
Although our routine was not complicated, it wasn't easy, either. The whole torch contraption we carried was maybe 40 inches long, and it wasn't made of today's light aluminum, by any means. When you got to your spot, you could rest the bottom of the pole on the floor, at which point the flame of the candle might have been at eye level or slightly higher. At one point -- I'm guessing the consecration -- we had to kneel on the edge of the large area rug in front of the altar, torches lit, and take off our cap with one hand while we held onto the torch with the other. You had to fold the little beanie in half with one hand, and tuck it into your sash.
Did I mention that we were six or seven years old, and dressed in unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and highly flammable outfits that were just waiting to trip us up either on the way down to that kneel or on the way back up? (There were a couple or three steps we had to climb and descend on our way in and out of the sanctuary, too.) Did I mention that it was pushing 1:00 in the morning, about five hours past our normal bedtimes, by the time the service was over? Six little boys with six sets of parents in the congregation (or maybe just the moms, if the dads didn't show), and every parent among them thinking "Fire."
We all made it through all right -- maybe a drop or two of hot wax in somebody's hair, melding with the Brylcreem on a crewcut, was the worst that happened. I guess we added to the pageantry and beauty of the service. And it whetted our appetite for the more important positions occupied by the senior altar boys. But I'm sure our folks were relieved to get us home in one piece to try to knock us out so that Santa could do his work.