Advent, or who let the atheist in?

Last night was our first Advent service of the year. Having a choirboy son means I am obliged to turn up occasionally. If you were around my blog a few years ago, you might have seen my experience of his first carolling outing (nose pegs required).

So there we were yesterday: Granny and me. Granny, as well as being a former opera singer (see previous link), now has problems with her eyesight which means she can’t see a) very far or b) in low light. A candlelit service with loads of people is no good unless we install her near the front, complete with her torch. If you’re now imagining a small lady in her seventies wearing a powerful head torch, sweeping a dazzling laser beam around an ancient chapel, sorry to disappoint. She has a discreet hand-held thing, and only uses it to read the words when we have to sing (more of that later).

candlesWe were early. You have to be, unless you want to be squashed at the back between fur coats smelling of mothballs and Chanel, both of which make me sneeze. There was ample time to observe the vicar lighting candles. All the candles. There were tall ones in glass cylinders for the choir. There were enormous ones the size of tree trunks either side of the lectern. Tea lights were crammed on every horizontal surface. Two complicated candelabra stood at each end of the altar, which were taller than the vicar: and lo, the holy stepladder was brought in and a lighted spill was carried aloft to illuminate the seasonal hairdos. By this stage, we were unbuttoning our coats as the combined calorific output of all these naked flames really powered up. He managed to do all this wearing a full-length robe and still not set his billowing sleeves alight. I was impressed.candles2

Pyromania sated, he folded up his stepladder and darted out of a side door. A hum of expectation grew as the organ started to play some soothing Bach. Granny was uncomfortable on the hard pew, so I fashioned a seat cushion out of my scarf. The coughing man behind us started asking around for a throat sweet, so I offered Granny’s supply (she never leaves home unprepared). Things were going well. I watched as a portly gentleman excavated his back teeth with a finger for some time. He caught my eye and buried himself in his hymn book.

Then the organist decided to play some Messiaen. Heads that had been nodding happily to Bach suddenly stilled, and turned to their neighbours. What was this? It sounded odd. Angular. You couldn’t tap your foot to it. Kenny Everett couldn’t have woven an entire series of mime sketches to it. Necks were craned to see what kind of organist would challenge Christmas expectations so. Thankfully, Bach was resumed before too long and the pews grew calm again. We all had another throat sweet to settle our nerves.

It didn’t last. There was a commotion, and the pew in front of us filled up all at once with the kind of people who have their seat reserved with a laminated piece of A4 bearing their name. There was a long kerfuffle as the first person in realised their name was not at the far end but mid-pew, and tried to reverse, bumping into others, until they all backed out and filed in again in the right order. I suspect they had been at a festive soirée, judging by the wafting sherry fumes and hilarity levels. I just hoped we weren’t going to have the olfactory disturbances I’d had to deal with before. Drunk is ok. Rectally-challenged is not.

Soon our eyes began to sting, and I heard the first rasping coughs from the back before we started ourselves. I realised God’s tear gas was being deployed. Granny, an elderly asthmatic, produced an impressive coughing fit, but luckily she had brought her inhaler. The weak may well inherit the earth, but unless your lungs are A1 you can apparently forget it.

Finally, then, they plunged us into darkness (apart from the forest fire of assorted candle power) and the music started, sung by a choir processing doggedly up the aisle despite burning their knuckles with melted wax from their personal Wee Willie Winkie illumination kit. They were brilliant, of course. Granny and I joined in the congregational hymns with gusto. The drunks in front of us sang with equal gusto, but – let’s be honest – slightly less accuracy. Clearly Granny made her mark, because as we were leaving one of them turned round and complimented her on her ‘marvellous voice’. It’s always worth bringing an opera singer to this kind of thing.

It’s my son’s last year as a treble. I’ll almost miss it. Almost.