One reviewer recently wrote: "In the 1950s, the prevailing notion was that one could vastly improve youth appeal by adding the word "rock" to any phrase, item, or activity. Folks rocked around clocks, in jailhouses and, yes, they even rocked Christmas carols. Pioneering musician and Rockabilly Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Helms released this song in 1956, and it has returned like an odd Yuletide curse practically every December since." Audio Fidelity label. (2:11)
The Christmas-time star on the southeast face of Mount Franklin was first put up, in a much smaller version, in 1940, by the El Paso Electric Company. The star today spans a distance of 459 ft., making it the world's largest illuminated star. Because it's surrounded by the darkness of the mountain, it stands out to where it's distinctly visible from outer space.
When I was a kid, the lighting of the tree in the downtown Plaza was a major event, at least that was true for kids who were Christmas "nutsy," which I definitely was. They still decorate the Plaza these days, though it has a much more contemporary look to it. The huge spruce trees that were brought in from the mountains up by Cloudcroft, New Mexico, and lit up like a church, as they say, have been replaced by what appears to be (from the photos) some variety of tree I'm not familiar with, some mutant, with strings of lights forming a sort of half sphere or dome, looking vaguely like a large Pacific Island hut up on a pole decorated for the season, maybe at a car dealership in Guam. It doesn't say Christmas to me, but each to their own. The Mills Building, facing the west side of the plaza, remodeled with more glass than the original, and "bronze" tinted, is an interesting mirror.
This opening to what is literally "Christ's Mass" goes: "Dominus dixit ad me. . . God has said to me: Thou art my son, this day I have begotten thee." This is from the Ambrose Karels' Gregorian Chant Christmas CD, released in '94 on the Invincible Recordings label. (2:14) On the left is the choir from St. Anthony Franciscan Seminary in El Paso, who for many years has been singing at Xmas Midnight Mass, and all the bishop's Pontifical Masses, at St. Patrick's Cathedral (above).
It sounds like a juvenille virus. and in a way, it is, or at least it can be. And when I was in the fourth grade, I caught it, big time. Our family's parish was St. Patrick's Cathedral, just short blocks north of downtown El Paso, and my older brother Mark and I attended St. Patricks's Elementary School, run by the Sisters of Loretto, adjacent to the Cathedral. Mark was in the seventh grade at the time, and he was an altar boy. Unlike many activities that younger brothers are barred from ("he's too little"), I discovered that my youth wasn't going to keep me out, even though there were no fourth grade altar boys, but I would have to learn the Latin responses used at Mass, and get a handle on the rubrics (the moves - where you needed to be at any given point in the Mass, and what you were expected to be doing).
With my brother's help, I devoured the Latin, and in no time at all was going through a brief exam with Father Curtis, the priest who had been assigned by Monsignor Caffrey, the pastor, to keep tabs on the "servers" and their scheduling. Everything went smoothly. I didn't get any "plum" assignments, but that was OK with me. I was thrilled to serve for Monsignor Quinn, the Diocesan Chancellor, at his 7:45 weekday Mass at a side altar. I'd do anything, I loved it.
A few days before Christmas there was a notice posted in the "altar boy room," the place where all the cassocks (the full-length "robes") and surplices (the white tops) were hung, and where we donned them before services. The notice was a call for servers to show up the following afternoon for a "rehearsal" of Christmas Midnight Mass, a Pontifical Mass, that is to say, a Mass where the diocesan bishop, His Excellency, Sidney Matthew Metzger, would be presiding, in short - a BIG deal in Altarboyland, a whole new territory for me, where I was quickly becoming a child "nester" you might say, or maybe "squatter" would be more accurate. It wasn't appreciated in some quarters. Some of the older guys, seventh and eighth graders, were starting to let me know what and where my place was. Among some of the privileged I grew up with at St. Pat's, arrogance, displayed as a repulsive childish snottiness, was part of the package. I did my best to ignore it. I was determined, and just maybe had at least a small dose of the faith of a small child, no small defense against slights and stupidity.
Pontifical Masses require a whole slew of characters: His Excellency, the lead, along with a deacon and sub-deacon, positions filled by priests, a master of ceremonies, with an assistant or two, (generally priests and/or major seminarians), acolytes (can be two or four, depending), a cross bearer, a book bearer, a candle bearer, a mitre bearer (mitre: the bishop's pointed cap), a crosier bearer (crosier: the staff the bishop carries - off and on), a half-dozen torch bearers (the red glass candles on staffs, as seen below, being the "torch" referred to), a thurifer, the guy who carries the smoking pot of incense, (the kid with the glazed-over red eyes, inhaling more toxins in a two-hour ceremony than you'd get smoking two packs of Camels a day, for a week), and his sidekick, the incense bearer, who carries the incense in a small golden container with a spoon, which looks suspiciously like. . . oh never mind, and lastly, the train bearer, the kid who carries the bishop's train - not a Lionel, (which, if you think about it long enough, would be rather amazing), but rather the huge "cape" the bishop wears, a holdover from medieval times, importance by the yard, stretching out behind him for eight or ten feet. In comparison, a cardinal's train is, by design, longer, by a few feet or more, a cardinal being higher in rank, and longer in train, than a mere bishop, or archbishop, the extra distance making the train bearer appear more like a charming caboose of sorts. And then there's the pope's train, weighed down with spun-gold embroidery and jewels, draping behind him long enough for a first-down, requiring a whole squad of train bearers (which have to be big guys - not fat, like most Italian clerics - but muscular, probably Ethiopian or Australian), all trains being ecclaesiastical authority in the guise of the king, or prince, or queen maybe. In addition, there are always a few, or quite a few, clerics around the periphery, dressed as court attendees or something similar, with no real duties, mostly just trying to look important, and pious, at the same time - a neat trick if you can pull it off; up front because of rank and stature, at times getting in the way, fussing and showboating like pesky debutantes in new gowns. There can also be, on occasion, such as the Ordination of a priest(s), co-celebrants, generally meaning visiting bishops, who are saying the Mass together with His Excellency, at the same altar, at the same time. Obviously, a big, BIG deal. Triple the acolytes and assistants, and quadruple the number of guys to expect in the ringside seats up front.
I showed up at the given time, not knowing what to expect, but not very hopeful. There were more altar boys on "staff" than there were "positions," and being the last-hired, and smallest, well. . . . We gathered in the sanctuary, and a priest I didn't know was with Father Curtis, looking us over. Eventually, Father Curtis thanked us all for coming, and introduced Father James B. Hay, pastor from Blessed Sacrament Parish, the guy who was going to run this show, apparently the one priest in the diocese who knew all the rubrics, the movidas, the "stage directions," and acted as Master of Ceremonies at these dramas. There was a lot to it - old-time Catholic ceremonialism like a Christmas Pontifical Mass had lots and lots of movidas. The boys who had served at these functions in the past were familiar with him, and he acknowledged some of them by name. I had heard altar boy "war stories" about this guy. If you were caught "asleep at the wheel" during a ceremony, you were going to get the riot act when things were done. He was big and ruddy-faced, with large-frame glasses, and could look, and sound, as severe as any Marine Sargeant.
Father Hay asked a few questions of various kids - "Didn't you serve as Candle Bearer last Easter?" "Yes Father." "Well, you take Book this time, OK?" "Yes Father." And so it went, until all the slots were filled, almost. He thanked the kids who didn't get picked, for coming, and asked us to please show up for Easter Midnight Mass rehearsal in the spring. He rotated the "players," at least a bit, and tried to give everyone a chance, at least everyone who took the whole thing seriously. If you showed up faithfully during the year for your assignments, you'd eventually be able to get on board with this elite "color guard" of sorts. I turned on my heels and started out with the other "not this time's," and then heard his booming voice behind me across the sanctuary - "WAIT A MINUTE SHORTY!" It was an order, not a request. Shorty? What's this all about? Who's he yelling at? Shorty? Who's Shorty? I turned around, and he was looking directly at me. My mind went to scrambled eggs. What (WHAT!?!?) could I have possibly done? "COME HERE!" he thundered, his powerful voice echoing through the vaults of the sanctuary, sounding like "THE GREAT AND MUNIFICENT OZ!" I walked over and stood before His Portliness, probably not unlike the terrified, stumbling Scarecrow. I had to suppress a sudden urge to pee in my pants. He looked down at me with a dead serious stare, probably getting a big kick out of the moment. My fear was palpable. His eyes looked like a hawk's. I'm sure mine looked like Tweety Bird's, bulging with bird-brained incomprehensible terror. "You'll carry the bishop's train Shorty, OK?" "Yes Father." I think he grinned, but it all gets a little fuzzy here. I was in shell-shock.
This addition is from Gregorian Chant: Advent - Christmas - Epiphany, by the Schola of the Monks of Montserrat, released in '06 by Milan Records. (2:55) In my day as an altar boy, those battery- powered candles on the right would have been looked upon as an unnatural thing, no doubt the "work of the devil."