This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 24, 2005 3:20 AM. The previous post in this blog was Real mistletoe. The next post in this blog is Merry Christmas. Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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Saturday, December 24, 2005


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.

Comments (9)

melding with the Brylcreem on a crewcut

Or how about flat top...that bit of stylin' where the barber put a grate on your head (I don't know what else to call it) and cut everything that stuck through off. And you waxed what little was left to stand straight up.

No altar boy here, though, Jack. The only time I remember being up there was being sent to pray before the virgin Mary statue...a hundred Hail Mary's for doing arm-farts during catechism class. That's why I went into public service...it's called penance.

I too was a Red Boy at St. Aloysius. Given the order of assignment, you were probably one of my Torchbearers. I remember thinking back then that carrying the candles was cool and that the older boys should get to do it.

I also recall that Midnight Mass attracted some Down Neck Catholics who were making merry all day Christmas Eve, and consequently arrived at church a bit tipsy.

It was part of the tradition. I'll never forget the Easter midnight Mass where, as a teenager, I showed up beyond tipsy. Now there's a story for another day.

St. John's on Mulberry Street was where the hard core Saturday night crowd went for midnight mass. That too is a story for another day.

I had an Irish priest in a small Idaho logging town.He had a Water Spaniel named "Finigan" and owned his own plane, which the bishop kept trying to take away from him. He was a delightful man with a great sense of homor.

We (alter boys) were terrified about making mistakes at midnight mass and asked Father Dooley if we should'nt have a rehearsal. He said "No, as long as you stay inside the communion rail everything will be alright." And it was, as he would whisper to us what he wanted us to do.
A fond memory.

Excellent story, Jack! And a very merry Christmas to you, your family and the other readers of this blogsite.


The Red-Boys thing is sooooo real! I also remember Third grade 'White-Boys' got to carry the candles ....I think Gary and I were both (I know I was)

I remember Tommy Crappse's solo "In the Little Village of Bethlehem" and for the life of me have not been able to find it other than an instrumental. ...."...and the sky was bright with the holy light 'twas the birthday of a King...."

Ahhhh, the memories.....was telling my wife how Sister Michael Charles made us pronounce 'nature' as 'nayt....yer'.....

It's a Wonderful Life! Aribe Down Neck & St. Al's

Harry Mac

Oh, yeah .... I was a 'white boy' of sorts at Midnight Mass this year.....we did a combination of adult and high school servers.... of the seven, I was #5, so I got to hold the book for the opening and closing prayers, serve the wine to Fr for pouring into the chalice (Offertory) then wash his hands.

My wife said the white-boy/red-boy training must've helped...I looked like angelic (whatever that is).

Now I wait for March and the annual visit to The Post (right behind 34 Cortland) for the St Patrick's festivities.

Pax Vobiscum!

My solo was on a song called "O Jesu Mi." Try finding a copy of that one! More on the red boys next year...

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