There would be tea brewing on the stove in the kitchen. The coals would show red with thin blue flames where one of the stove covers had been tilted. Then, there would be a candle, perhaps two, for there could only be candles on Christmas Eve. They would be burned down pretty low now, it being after eleven o’clock when he would reach home. About ten minutes past eleven, he always reached home. His stamping the snow off his shoes on the steps outside would be the signal for the handful of tea to be dropped into the pot. There would be candles in the next room, too, the dining room they called it. And then beyond that, another candle or two. Always candles on Christmas Eve. Not many candles. A few candles, but good candles special for the vigil. They would spear the dark with steady yellow flames, and make long, rich shadows on the walls and on the pictures on the walls. The ceiling would be lighted without shadows.
There were never shadows like these Christmas Eve candle shadows. They gave mystery to the house, and a soft strangeness that you never found on any other night.
The Boy would throw his hat and coat on the chair by the kitchen stove. Then, he would go on through the dining room, as they called it, into the other room. She would meet him, as she got up from the floor where she would be setting out the presents before the tiny crib. Her knees would be stiff, he knew, and her poor body tired, but she would get up with her white face happy in spite of its whiteness, and her always bright eyes brighter, and she would turn to him for a glance of appreciative pleasure. He knew she would look for that, though she had made the house clean, had washed and mended the old lace curtains, had scrubbed the floors–hadn’t he noticed the kitchen floor, white with the grain showing?– had swept and dusted not so much for his pleasure this night, but because God was coming. But she would look to see if he were happy. He would scowl. It was defensive, or perverse. But he would scowl, and while he scowled he would notice how white her hair showed on the side that caught the light of the candles.
“My poor boy is tired,” she would say.
Then he could hold the scowl no longer. He would say:
“Ma, the crib is beautiful.”
Then he would get down on his knees beside it. There would be a little red sanctuary lamp on the floor before it, with the white wick floating in oil. At twelve o’clock the lamp would be lighted. If you should happen into the room–the parlor they called it– in the early hours when the candles would be out, you would see only this, the red lamp with its tiny light flickering. It would cast a spell over you, this unsteady small light showing red on the floor beneath you. You would stand there and look at it, unstirring, unthinking, for minutes.
So, the Boy would get down on his knees beside the crib. It would be the same little crib they had last Christmas, and the Christmas before that. There would be the little imitation thatch shed, open in front. Outside, would be three shepherds with two sheep, kneeling. Inside, would be St. Joseph with his brown cloak and white beard and our Mother with her blue dress. In back would be the ox and the ass, the ox with his head low. And in the center, on a few wisps of hay– real hay that the peddler fed his horse–would be the tiny figure of Him who was all the world.
He would kneel there, before the shed that was not a foot high, and move the figures about a bit. He always liked to have the ox and ass close to the crib. Then, he would study the presents, laid out before the crib as tenderly as the Wise Men must have laid out their gifts. They would still be in their boxes. He would not touch them, not until daybreak. Then, they would all stop for a swift minute on their way out to Mass.
Afterward, after Mass and Communion, they, with their glass of water drunk but not yet with breakfast, would strew the floor with red strings and wrapping paper and boxes. How much colorful rubbish a few little things could make! For there were but a few things before the crib: a fountain pen, a tie, two books, a box of handkerchiefs… He could recognize everything from their boxes, thin square boxes for handkerchiefs, long boxes for gloves and ties. . . . But he knew, anyway. He and his mother had conspired together for the family. He had his gifts, too. But they would not be put out until he was safely in bed….
Then, she would call from the kitchen. He had better hurry. It was getting close on midnight. So he would have his cup of tea, and a slice of brown-crusted white bread that had come from the oven that afternoon. And maybe a piece of the fruit cake, the rich, dark fruit cake heavy with spice and raisins that was always in the house on Christmas Eve. She would have her cup of tea with the cream– for they would use the cream tonight– showing brown gold on top. But she would have only tea for it was the vigil of Christmas.
That would be beautiful. He would tell her all that had happened at work. How old Nelson was worried because his little girl was ill, and it was Christmas Eve. How the yardmaster who cursed constantly was quiet today, and swore only when he was mad. How Big Mike had gone down to St. Mary’s to confession with him, and how the church was crowded. Everything, everything. . . .
And then he would empty his pockets of all his money, including the gold piece the firm had given him for Christmas. That would be his supreme moment– to give over every dollar, every cent. He had been doing that so long now but it never, for some strange reason, failed to make him gulp with happiness. Hadn’t they bought the piano together, his mother and he, the upright piano with the green covering that came with it? Hadn’t thy bought the new heavy rug for the parlor, the two of them, conspiring this way? Weren’t they saving now to buy the house?– the house out of town a little distance, the house with a garden, quiet, but near the church.
How happily she would look at him. How proudly. And he would drain his teacup so that he could hold the cup high and hide his eyes, his moist eyes. . . .
That would be beautiful, beautiful.
“Pray for those poor souls who have no home on Christmas Eve,” she would say, as always she had said.
And the Boy would pray.
The Pullman porter gave a quick turn to the Young Man’s chair. The Young Man who had been dozing sat up abruptly.
“Grand Central, suh.”
The porter was holding his overcoat.
The Young Man was dazed.
Wasn’t there tea brewing, and a red fire showing where the stove corner had been tilted? And across from him. . . .
Across from him was a row of Pullman chairs. Empty, of course. Who else but a harried reporter would be traveling thus into New York at eleven o’clock on Christmas Eve?
The porter took his tip and was gone. The Young Man made his way hazily out into the station.
And there were candles, one or two that spotted the room with yellow flames and threw long shadows. . . .
“Reservation?” asked the room clerk in the hotel.
The Young Man nodded and wrote his name. A tall bald-headed man in a dinner jacket staggered across the heavily ornate hotel lobby. Two gaudy young women tittered.
Candles, a few candles. . . .
A thin, small, ageless bellboy, in blue uniform and silver braid, appeared mechanically. He took his bags and led the way to the elevator.
And she was there, rising from the crib on the floor. How white her hair showed where it caught the light of the candles. . . .
“The heat on, sir?” The bellboy was turning the valve on the radiator. The steam began to pound through the pipes.
The Young Man moved to the window. Twenty stories below him the city was stirring out of its newly laid cover of snow. Even in the dark, the roofs were white, the cornices and window ledges were white. Far, far down, the streets were white, white spotted with black, streaked with black.
“Looks like a white Christmas.”
The bellboy spoke impatiently. The Young Man gave him his tip. He banged the door as he left.
The Young Man turned back to the window.
It was the same little crib with its imitation thatch, and the few wisps of hay– real hay the peddler fed his horse. . . .
The Young Man looked down. Everywhere there were lights, ragged lights, pointed lights, clustered lights, solitary lights, white, red, yellow lights. But the Young Man did not see. He drew the shade and turned from the window.
And there was St. Joseph in his brown cloak and our Lady in her blue dress and the tiny figure of Him who was all the world. . . .
The Young Man still had on his overcoat. Under the mirror of the dresser was a collar button of a former guest which the maid, in her cleaning, had missed. He fixed his eyes on it but did not see. He was without heart and his mind whirred. Where, he was asking himself dazedly, where in this world’s maze of people and places, where in this wilderness of stars and philosophies, where is Home?
Hadn’t they bought the piano together, and the rug.…
The Young Man threw himself on the bed.
“Dear Jesus! Dear Mother of God!”
His sobbing filled his cell in the mountain of earth and steel, glass and stone.
“Dear Mother of God!”
And she would say, “Pray for those poor souls who have no home on Christmas Eve...“
“Dear Jesus!” He sobbed.
The while midnight came, and with it Christmas.
–From Dan England and the Noonday Devil, Myles Connolly, 1951