With a ‘not that again’ look, Michael shrugged. “Don’t bring me into it, but if you want to try for it at the carol service, give it a go. I’ll run it as a service of lessons and carols as usual but if you want real people instead of crib figures, that’s up to you.” That was as near as she was going to get to enthusiasm, so she supplied extra of her own.
Young Liz Morton had just had a baby boy, and little Tom was so good. She eagerly agreed to be Mary and to bring Tom along as Baby Jesus. Her husband wasn’t a church-goer so they’d found another chap to stand in as Joseph. At rehearsals, Helen asked them to take their places during the hymn Away in a Manger.
The Burns family at Oak Tree Farm had a pet lamb, imaginatively known as Lammie, and this massive, spoilt creature, accompanied by the older Burns boy, Jack, would approach and settle by the crib during While Shepherds Watched. Old George from the other end of the village usually brought Sally, his donkey, for Easter services. He said he’d accompany Little Donkey down the church aisle, though preferably not with Liz and baby Tom on her back. They might have to stray from the script a little in places.
Hark the Herald would see a couple of the children from the village school approach the crib, armed with tinsel crowns and stars on sticks. She was stuck for three kings until she remembered Dora King from Main Street who would no doubt be delighted to stand in for a trio of Magi. This was starting to come together.
The evening before the service, Helen was busy clearing space on the sanctuary, pushing the Christmas tree to the back, setting up chairs for Mary and Joseph and the wooden crib they usually used for the doll ‘Baby Jesus’. Michael was rehearsing his readers, trying, like the ex-teacher he was, to get them to put expression into old-fashioned wording and phrases they would never use in real life.
The Saturday evening before Christmas arrived, the church looked splendid decked in greenery and lit by candles, and to the processional hymn Once in Royal David’s City, the choir (three children and an elderly lady) came in, followed by Michael the vicar. He welcomed the unusually large congregation, many of whom only came here once a year to sing carols, and they began.
After the first reading, they sang O Little Town of Bethlehem and some of the children from the school brought in their painted backdrops of the city, fastening the pictures to the altar frontal to set the scene. Liz and the sleeping baby Tom took their places, with ‘Joseph’ whose usual connection to the place was that he cut the grass in the churchyard. Liz understandably continued holding her baby, rather than setting him down in the dusty straw in the crib.
The angels swept in managing to look both proud and embarrassed and wielding their stars a little threateningly for Helen’s liking, but soon settled down, holding them high in the imaginary firmament. Jack Burns dragged in the enormous Lammie with a dog’s collar and lead, letting her off by the cradle. Sally, the Little Donkey, clattered up the centre aisle and took her place to the right of the stable scene, distractedly nicking wisps of the hay which should have cradled the Holy Child. Mrs King came up part way through her carol, as she’d been trying vainly to get her son, Joel, to join her as a second king, but with that sullen half-sneer which teens the world over have perfected, he shook her off. Helen suspected he didn’t even want to be here.
Everything went so smoothly and every now and again, when an angel nudged and whispered to her companion, or baby Tom burped, a great ‘Aww!’ went up from the entranced congregation. Helen beamed from her seat at the end of the front pew.
Then she looked, horrified, at Lammie. Those were not spilt raisins on the floor behind her! As the big creature relieved herself, she snuffled in the face of the baby who awoke, startled, at the sight of what was demonstrably not a cute little baa-lamb sneezing at him. His cries were only stilled by Liz fumbling him under her Mary’s Blue Encompassing Gown for a feed as nature intended.
The choir broke into On Christmas Night all Christians Sing while Helen crept behind the increasingly chaotic scene with a dustpan and brush to remove the evidence of Lammie’s moment of crisis. Then, as the soaring notes of the last line, ‘Now and forever more, Amen!’ swept up into the rafters, an angel voice cried, “Euww! It’s doing a wee-wee!” and the rising steam showed Sally the donkey to have reached the end of her tether, so to speak.
Michael walked like a condemned man up the pulpit steps, thanked the giggling congregation for joining them and intoned the times of the Christmas services. He invited people to stay for cups of tea and coffee, hot mince pies and sweets for the children. As candles were snuffed and the lights went up, he put his elbows on the lectern and his head in his hands. Helen, dashing up with a mop and bucket, didn’t fail to notice.
George, deciding that Sally had outstayed her welcome, nodded a brief apology to Helen and dragged his charge by her bridle to the South Door, where they exited to begin the half-mile trot down Main Street to her home paddock. Seeing this movement of a fellow creature as permission to flee, Lammie stumped her way through the crowds, causing more than one cup of scalding tea to hit the ancient terracotta tiles of the aisle floor. Michael managed to grab her and Jack put the collar back on before more damage was done.
A surprisingly good-humoured crowd gathered at the back of the church as some of the ladies of the congregation continued handing out refreshments. They could hardly hear themselves above the animated chatter of a crowd who usually couldn’t wait to get home to their televisions. Helen had removed the weaponised stars from the angels but they began pushing one another in the queue for sweets, so their mothers, with a professional combination of threats and bribery, swept them apart. Then there was a loud cry.
Almost giving herself whiplash, Helen turned to see where the anguished voice had come from. She suspected Lammie of running amok again and was about to yell for Jack. This time, Lammie was innocent! Jane, the heavily pregnant half of the couple who ran the post office was leaning back in her pew, holding her distended belly. “It’s coming!” she shouted. Helen and a couple of other ladies rushed to her aid, but were elbowed aside by Dr Gordon, still so called though he’d retired several years back.
“Why didn’t you say anything earlier?” he asked. “You’ve been in labour for some time.”
“What? And miss a show like this?” She began to stand but was wracked with another contraction.
“Can we get her next door? Then ring an ambulance,” the doctor suggested, referring to the vicarage as a place they could take Jane, and even maybe deliver the baby if the ambulance didn’t get a wriggle on.
“Looks like we could have had a real live birth in the stable,” Helen said, helping Jane and Dr Gordon through the milling crowd and out to her home just a few yards along the path. When she returned, three quarters of an hour later, she was surprised to see that most of the congregation were still there, sitting in the pews, brewing more tea and coffee and chatting. Lammie was making a decent living hoovering up fallen bits of mince pie and intimidating some of the more sensitive children into dropping sweets.
“Well?” asked Vera, the organist.
“It’s a girl!”
“No use for a Baby Jesus, then.” Vera looked personally insulted by the news.
Helen, sitting back on a pew, exhausted, accepted a cup of tea from one of the helpers. “Blimey,” she said, then looked around, not sure, even after all these years as a vicar’s wife, if it was an acceptable thing to say in church. “I don’t remember an evening like it. And all these people!”
The place was alive. The carol service wasn’t like their usual, sparsely attended services. People came this one night of the year just because they loved to sing the old carols, songs they’d sung in their own, innocent childhoods. Yet people who’d come here this evening as virtual strangers left in chatting groups, like old friends. Her tired smile carried over the crowds to her husband.
“We did well tonight, didn’t we?” he said. “Eventually!”
As she finished her tea, Josh King slapped her enthusiastically on the back. “Hey, Missus! That was well sick!”
“He means it was very good indeed,” his mother pronounced, mock-slapping him on the head as they passed.
“Yeah,” he said, ducking another swipe from his mother’s hand. “I reckon it’d be a crime if you din’t do it again next year!”