Growing up Catholic, I attended mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation at the Church of St. Vincent de Paul in Albany, New York. The church was within walking distance of both of the houses in which my family lived since I was born.
The Christmas season was a special occasion in our church, and I especially enjoyed seeing the nativity scene in the church. The figures in the crèche seemed enormous to me, and awe-inspiring in the grandeur.
When my sisters and I were very young, we would attend services on Christmas Day, after being wrenched away from the gifts left by Santa. On Christmas day, the choir sang carols with which we were familiar, and we lustily sang along.
As we grew older, we asked to attend Midnight Mass, a request met with some skepticism by our parents who thought we’d just fall asleep during the service. Falling asleep proved not to be a problem, as often as not we ended up standing through the service, having arrived too late to secure seats in a pew.
Attending Midnight Mass provided benefits, however. The midnight service was much more elaborate than the services on Christmas day. There was a procession. There was incense. There were many more candles than we normally saw at church. And, upon returning home, my sisters and I were each allowed to open one Christmas present before we went to sleep, an opportunity not available to us before we started attending Midnight Mass.
Some years later, perhaps when I was in about fourth through eighth grades, I was an altar boy and was able to participate in the Christmas services directly. For Midnight Mass, quite a few of the altar boys assisted, some laying out the vestments for the priests, some preparing the wine, water, and hosts, some preparing the thurible and incense, some lighting the candles.
As an altar boy, my favorite job was as thurifer. I would empty the ashes from the thurible, fill the incense boat, place a round piece of charcoal in the thurible, and light the charcoal. The charcoal, itself, amazed me. It was laced with gunpowder which allowed the charcoal to light quickly without using flammible liquids. The top of the charcoal had ridges in a star shape and, when lit, the charcoal would begin to spark, first along the star ridges, then into the body of the charcoal, until the entire charcoal was glowing red.
At the appropriate point in the service, I would carry the thurible to the priest. Another alter boy would carry the boat of incense, which the priest would bless. I would raise the lid of the thurible and the priest, using an elaborately decorated spoon, would sprinkle incense on the now-glowing charcoal. I would then lower the lid onto the base and pass the smoking thurible to the priest, who would proceed to cense the altar, the nativity scene, the book of the Gospel, and the congregation.
Returning home after the service, my mother remarked that I smelled of incense. I didn’t mind. I rather liked the smell.
Written for the Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories – Day 17.
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen J. Danko