People large with winter coats bustled in the foyer, blocking it up with conversation and children. I toddled through the glass doors with my family, a small child in a perpetual state of scared silence, bumping back and forth and losing my balance. The church was compact with human life. Heat radiated from each of us and made us sweat under the slick fabric of our coats. We, the holy mass of people seeking mass, squeezed through the double doors on either side of the foyer into the warm holy belly.
The high vaulted ceiling of the nave, ribbed with wooden beams, ballooned upward and outward, catching all of the sounds and spinning them around in an echoing hum, like someone had struck a tuning fork. The vibrations seeped from the building, reaching every Catholic in the town. We were all here on Christmas Eve. We spilled into the chamber, summoned, by faith, by insistent family, by tradition, by the helpless acquiescence of youth.
The immense space above the pews daunted me as I slipped inside. All the emptiness between our heads and the ceiling’s spine. We looked like we were shuffling onto an immense boat, we were animals coaxed onto an ark, baby animals wailing and pulling at their mothers’ hands. Where were we going? Why were we really here? Our boots pushed in the snow from outside, it moved across the foyer with us, melting as it went and leaving brown slush and puddles that loudly slapped and sloshed and sucked under our boots.
My family plopped to the right, I dipped my hand into the holy water cistern as we went and stuck a wet finger to my forehead, leaving a fat tremulous drop there. Once we reached the pew, there was a lot of sliding, endless scooching along the smooth wooden benches, and we nestled like birds on a tree branch. We preened and wiggled our butts around on the seat, formed a nest with our coats and hats and scarves and gloves. Suddenly, everyone I had pinballed off of in the foyer was now close to me again, their heads hovering in rows above the pews, an endless sea of bobbing heads in all directions, their sweaty hair plastered to their scalp from their disrobed winterwear.
My eyes spun, assessing all the strange smells and sounds from people pressed up against me, the scabby backs of their heads hovering so close to my nose, their white moonfaces pointed at me from behind. We all squeezed in even closer together to fit more people; the pews were filled to the brim, people were standing in the back, standing on the choir loft, there were faces peeping out of a soundproofed window in the back where people patted their screaming babies. I could smell deodorant and sweat and Listerine and perfume, all mixed into the hot soupy air, occasionally stirred by a frigid breeze sneaking through the doors.
This once a year experience — a packed church — was overwhelming and exciting for a child. My confusion regarding religion would eventually swirl around and coalesce into a profound atheistic indifference, but in that moment I peered over the sea of heads to see Jesus Christ hanging in the apse over the altar, his head and legs twisted, the tendons carved taut, with textured muscles and folds of skin. Then the choir began and the spiraling, humming cacophony boomed down from the belly of the boat, bouncing off every beam and stained glass pane and surrounding me as if I had plunged into a deep pool, the unintelligible human sounds and echoes clashing and crashing in waves through my head. I sank down into the pews, toward the slushy ground and onto the padded hassock. The statues in the sanctuary disappeared from my sight and the sounds flew over my head. I entered the world of mud and boots and wood patterns and footrests and fallen gloves.
When the sound ceased, the booming noise cut off in order for the priest to speak and be heard, the dramatic shift filled my chest with awe. I listened to the reverberating words from my spot hidden down on the hassock, surrounded by puffy coats and the warmth radiating from my relative’s fat thighs, the Lord’s message flying over my head and resounding off the massive stained glass window above the choir, off the image of a blue-gray dove rising into the sky amidst flames and spirit. “The Lord — his disciples — God’s will — Creation — His mercy.” I played with my hair and stared up at the vault of the nave’s roof.
I didn’t emerge from this den underneath my family’s kneecaps until the priest called the children up, which he did every Christmas Eve, summoned them past the crossing and onto the elevated sanctuary around the altar. I crawled back onto the pew and over the laps of loved ones until I stumbled into the aisle, desperate to go to some place that I was never allowed to go at any other time of year, some mysterious location with a new perspective — at the helm of this big boat. Stumbling with the other small children, I stepped up onto the chancel and slid between the giant poinsettias gathered there, boots scraping against the carpet as I squirmed to and fro and knocked heels with other children. The world had gone from the darkness of the pew crowds to the blindingly bright stage where all sound now originated, so close to the slamming, monstrous notes of the organ and the priest’s voice, which occupied every corner of the apse and escaped to reach the very top of the nave, the timorous organ and sermon and holy hum and the high-pitched warble of the old women in the choir all blending and separating and re-mingling, seeping into my little ear canals and stunning my brain.
The priest looked at all us little children, our legs bent every which way and our noses up, mouths hanging open, and told us a Good Samaritan story that checked with everything we had been told about being nice for Santa. Occasionally a small child would start screaming and sobbing, nostrils dribbling, and a parent would come grab them and carry them back to the sea of bodies below. They couldn’t take it, all the light and the sounds and the statues staring down and the life lesson. I could though, I could.
When it was over, I proudly slipped back to my spot in land of mud and boots and uncomfortable hassocks. I sunk down past my mother’s knee and crouched on the floor. The congregation was nearly at an end, I knew from memory — there would be the Peace be With Yous, elderly strangers would clasp my hand and squeeze it while they stared down into my eyes and wished, implored, for peace to come into my life. I spun in a circle and everyone, strangers with poor circulation, little boys with clammy red palms, held onto my hand. “Peacebewithyou/Andalsowithyou.”
Afterwards, when the priest spoke we echoed back with memorized lines, sending our collective voices to the top of the nave so they could come rushing back to us tenfold and rattle our saturated brains.
“Lift your hearts.”
“We lift them up to the Lord.”
“Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God.”
“It is right to give Him thanks and praise.”
I suspected that perhaps peace was with me by this point, and everyone rose and we moved like a storm back to the foyer, where the slush had dried and the ushers had opened the doors wide open so the cold air could smack us in the face and knock the peace out of us before we all descended to the next level of family tradition, which was perhaps quieter, definitely less bright, in the kitchens of our relatives, to stuff ourselves disgusting with the Wigilia meal and tasteless papery bread that cleansed our palate of vivacious spirit, menacing holy sounds, and lessons echoed through an ark full of animals.