My dad was a Christmas Eve baby. Can you imagine the possibility, if ever so slight, of his being sideways teased at being a mere day before holiness, a line of work somewhat outside Dad’s field? In all charity, I’d say Dad had the potential to be a C&E Catholic, meaning those who drag into church on Christmas and Easter. Cynical and sad as that sounds, it is a cut well above his father, a B&B Catholic, the letters standing for baptism and burial. Grandpa Joe was adamant in his belief that church is for women and kids. His finest service to the Lord was with a beer on the porch with church bells ringing at a safe distance.

Mom and Dad’s version of the faith was a position short of B&B Catholicism and above the C&E type. That’s because they had me to send as the stand-in for them. It was important to get the weekly envelope in the basket, and what better vehicle for the task than a fifteen-year-old pimple factory with hardly any other known skills? In a way, however, I appreciated and capitalized on any excuse to get away from the hawkeyed duo. This applied even to the dull side of church, where I participated reasonably widely in altar boy and associated activities at a time no one acted obsessively worried about what was under our cassocks.

Actually, being an altar boy was quite easy. I had a pretty good Latinate mumble and could Deo Gratias with the best. Ritual is comfortable. You mutter here, genuflect there, Mea Culpa on cue, and do the other small acts of ritual, and whether you understand them or not, the result is the same Pax Vobiscum to Go in Peace. I wonder how many church bulletins I cranked off in mimeo each week, how many tall candles I lit and snuffed. Don’t neglect uncounted bells rung, genuflections, and crosses borne.

It seems like a lot, but as I said it was easy. Basic altar boy requirements were few. First, one had to look slightly angelic. Like most boys, I could appear empty headed enough to pull that off without a hint of thought issuing from my idle mind. Next, you needed tidy hair along with a clean face and hands. Polished shoes were the hardest part of the role. I welcomed rainy days as release from shoe shining because I could hardly jog blocks to church in the rain and not arrive with last week’s shine looking up to the task ahead. With head, hands, and feet passable, an altar boy could have near been naked under his cassock, though in fact dungarees worn to church were not approved, which makes me sure in saying that bermudas and birthday suits would have been similarly frowned on or laughed at, as the case would warrant.

Dad’s Christmas Eve birth made remembering and acknowledging his day an increasingly simple matter, because soon as I hit the age where a limited allowance needed to be squandered other ways, I could double up by giving Dad one gift to cover both occasions. He didn’t always take to gifts such as a new ice fishing pole so he could take me fishing with exactly the response I was after, but with the pole placed prominently in the garage where he couldn’t miss it, he was often reminded of his son’s special form of selfish generosity, which was one of the few things youth made me especially good at conducting. I somewhat made up for this at the end of my college years by replacing Dad’s ratty tweed sports jacket (his idea of an acceptable suit) with something more presentable. He actually liked it and wore it often enough for me to appreciate his ability to mismatch to excruciating perfection. Dad doted on clip-on bow ties, which I will admit were much to be preferred to his selection of regular ties, ones I had to tie for him, and he kept that way. One side of his closet looked like home to a dozen headless hangings. I eventually quit fussing about such things, but only because doing so was hopeless, same as his way of matching socks with shoes to make the visual equivalent of fingernails on a chalk board.

Another thing that calmed my fussing was to ask myself what mattered. In a season when the culture and tradition observes travelers sheltered in a stable where a child is born in lowly circumstance, the issue of argyle socks and clip-on polka dot bow ties is really quite immaterial.  Trashed up, glittered, and commercialized as we’ve seen Christmas become, the basics of the season speak for themselves. Can’t a sincere smile or kind act done in secret be better than an expensive show? We’ve plenty of clerics who preach so, but there are also poets who give similar insight, as MacLeish does in “Ars Poetica.” If the Christmas message suffers being trivialized and commercialized, that seems to me a better fate than being ignored, as happens to the voices of poets. Oh, of course, the nation proudly recognizes a poet laureate, but face it. That title is the same as being declared officially and permanently boring by whining at us about how important a thing is rather than allowing the thing to speak for itself.

In metaphor, things take on wonderful voice. The opposite of wonder I recall from a poem where the wanna-poet used “sno” to replace “snow” to be more visually perfect with his clever rhymes using go, fro, slo, kno, and other butchered words ending in w. The poem was a trial, and if there was any doubt, the wanna-po took the brave step of explaining his work. Are you ready? He explained writing the poem after following “five deer on snowshoes.” Damn fool wrote a poem when he should have run for his camera to get a photo of those deer on snowshoes.