Maybe no one will mind if I tell a few of my favorite Christmas stories.
When I first came in 1961, it was as an English teacher and also the speech & drama teacher. These days the Browning Blackfeet kids win debate and interp competitions and stage Broadway musicals all the time, but in those days they were pretty dubious about the whole enterprise. Nevertheless, the first Christmas I arranged a series of still tableaus, climaxing with the traditional manger scene. No one flinched at that idea then.
Phyllis Pepion was Mary and at first we tried to scare up a babydoll, but there didn’t seem to be one that would work. So then we thought she could just hold a bundle of swaddling. But I had the brilliant idea of putting a lightbulb inside the swaddling so it would look as though the baby were radiant, divine. The pageant night came, Mary looked beatifically maternal, but the choir singing “Silent Night” went on a little longer than they had in rehearsal.
Suddenly the swaddling clothes began to smoke and then burst into flame! “Mary,” ever resourceful as any rez girl should be, quickly threw the baby Jesus on the floor and stomped the fire out. There was a long silence before everyone figured out what had happened and began to applaud and cheer.
The second story is from about ten years later. Bob had divorced me in November, 1970, but I failed to leave. We just went on as before, which Bob wouldn’t have done if he’d realized it gave me the leverage to abort the divorce. I didn’t know that either. I just couldn’t think where to go. On Christmas Eve he asked me what I’d like to do. I had two things in mind that we’d never gotten around to. One was the traditional Christmas Eve dancing which was then still held in a log round house in Starr School and the other was Midnight Mass at the stone Catholic Church of the Little Flower in Browning. So that’s what we did.
It was very cold, zero or below, but the trusty pickup took us out to Starr School where the round hall was packed with people, oldsters and little kids on benches (that was before everyone had lawn chairs) around the walls and dancers with bells on their ankles and roaches on their heads keeping perfect time to the pounding drums. Things were smaller and plainer in those days. Most guys wore home-dyed long underwear as the basis of their costumes. Many of the old ladies and a few of the old men wore silk scarves on their heads, while the more cowboy of the Indians wound black silk scarves around their necks. Heat came from an oil drum converted to a stove, burning so hot that it glowed red. One worried about a drunk blundering into it.
But most of the drunks were outside. The ones who were taking a break from dancing steamed as though they were smouldering. They stood around pickup beds with their elbows on the edge and their hands inside, pretending that you didn’t know they were holding bottles in there. The door would fly open to let someone in or out and orange light would splash out across the snow, along with a burst of noise. Then the door would slam and outside it would be silent except for the drinking men laughing softly and maybe a pickup door slamming.
When it got close to midnight, we drove back to town with the tires crunching on the snow, driving slow because it was treacherous and anyway you didn’t know what might be stopped on the road. We had to park a block away and sit in the last pew where a Vietnam soldier on leave moved over for us as much as he could. He was a little drunk and took a liking to us. He assured us that since we weren’t Catholic, he would be our guide and show us when to stand or kneel. But either he was too drunk or he wasn’t all that Catholic, because the three of us were out of phase with everyone else and it was just as well that we were in the back pew. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful mass. It’s always a good feeling afterwards to file out with the congregation and linger for a few moments to greet friends.
The last story is about Midnight Mass out at Heart Butte in the old St. Anne’s Church, a log building with many coats of cement stucco. It was 1990 and I was teaching out there. Inside, the church was painted peach and the windows were frosted rather than stained glass. In the front at the right was a kind of grotto for the creche, formed of Christmas tree and branches. On the left was a pastel plaster statue of the Virgin Mary. The Metis fiddle group clustered around an electric piano behind the congregation. Father went in and out a door behind the altar until the crowd began to gather in earnest. Then he calmly put on his vestments in plain view. The chasuble was a brilliant red with the Latin for “Kairos” in a gilt pattern on the front. The word means the transcendent moment which intersects with “Chronos” or ordinary time. People came in breathless from the cold and the struggle up the ice-coated hill from the parking.
When we got to the sermon, Father was inspired. He told about a little boy and girl, Blackfeet, who had lived not many miles away. Their parents were drinking and careless; there was no food or fuel in their house. They had been ill and the boy had tried to take care of the younger sister but she was getting worse. They decided they should go to the neighbors for help. There was no phone and the nearest neighbor was five miles away but they set out in the snow. The girl couldn’t make it and died out there while he held her. In adulthood he became a hard drinker and somehow on Christmas Eve he always found himself near that spot in the snow where his sister had left him behind.
But one Christmas he had a vision. His sister came to him and told him she was happy in Heaven. She said he should go to a house where there was a new baby and ask to stay there. He did that. They helped him become sober. Years later Father confessed that he’d made it all up but it was a great story anyway, and might do some good. In fact, a lot of people have sobered up in the last few decades.
When it was time to go back to our cars, the men stood spaced out in a line and handed us along over the ice. Ungloved, I went from one large strong hand to the next, all of us wishing each other Merry Christmas. The stars were great wreaths and swirls of sarvisberry blossoms across a black velvet sky. There was no wind to make the pines sing, but their incense enveloped us.