Ben Hur’s visit on Christmas Eve

chariot_edited-2This is one of my favorite Christmas stories of all times. It happened many years ago.

Back when the beloved husband and I were dating we introduced each other to our family customs and traditions. For the beloved husband it was beer drinking, baseball and being outside whenever the weather allowed. For me it was different things – shopping, family reunions and feelings talk.

There was one area where we were entirely in agreement and that is music. We both love lots of different types. He is kind when I break into song, off-key with the wrong words. Now that is love. Really! It’s not good.

I thought he would really like my Christmas tradition — Christmas Eve mass.

In our cathedral, midnight mass was a huge deal. The wonderful choir sang at 11 p.m. with the formal mass starting at midnight. Since it was a high mass celebrated by the bishop, it was full of pageantry. That’s what made it so wonderful — incense all over the place and costumes galore.

It would fill up to standing room only so to get a good seat or any seat you had to get there by 10:30 p.m. You can do the math – arrival at 10:30, choir at 11, an hour-long high mass at midnight, it took close to 3 hours. The choir was wonderful but the best part was when they sang the Hallelujah chorus at the very end of the mass. That ensured no one left early. There wouldn’t be a dry eye in the place and everyone was in the holiday spirit groping hugging strangers on their way out of the church.

The beloved husband, who at that time was Mr. Wonderful, appeared (?) to be excited about it. We got there at 10:30 only to be smooshed in a hard wood pew with tons of other people and all kinds of smells. Some people ate garlic before mass. Some drowned themselves in perfume. Others may have showered but wore a coat that hadn’t been cleaned in ten years. Aside from the Campbell’s soup smell coming from the armpits, I could see the spirit of meals long past dribbled all over.

The choir delivered. They were just wonderful. However, we had been there an hour and a half before the mass itself started.

The bishop’s procession started down the aisle. He had a dozen altar boys with candles in front followed by six priests carrying incense burners. You can imagine the smell. Incense mixed with Estee Lauder’s Beautiful, Campbell’s soup, garlic and Old Spice. Yum! It was hot and sweaty so throw that in too.

From where we sat it looked awesome (my opinion) with all these folks in costumes strolling down the aisle. From Mr. Wonderful’s perspective it looked like a Roman orgy about to begin. It was only missing the gladiators and the lions.

I murmured positive comments hoping that he could hold on until the Hallelujah chorus. I started to sweat. I don’t think this is what he signed up for. If only he could hold out. I just knew he would LOVE the Hallelujah Chorus!

Alas! It was too much. In an overcrowded cathedral in a very loud voice, he, who was raised in the Quaker religion, asked me if Messala was going to follow in his chariot to challenge Ben Hur. There was snickering all around us. Fortunately, neither of us were struck dead or thrown out.

Since I was raised with all that pageantry, I found it comforting and familiar and wonderful. Did I mention it was a Latin mass? For someone raised with severe simplicity, perhaps not so much. He was a great sport and lasted until the end of the Hallelujah Chorus. Then asked if we could not do that again.

Our new custom is to watch the 1954 movie “White Christmas.” It’s not quite the same but add some wine and it works.

PS: I get choked up every time I hear the Hallelujah Chorus. It must be connected to some old, deep memories that I don’t fully understand. Here is a wonderful version sung by a flash mob in Canada in 2010. It reduces me to big heaping sobs every time I listen.

41 thoughts on “Ben Hur’s visit on Christmas Eve

  1. Just beautiful, Kate. The joy on the unsuspecting crowd’s faces are just a delight. I admit I wept (with tears of joy) thru most of this. Thanks for sharing. I converted to Catholicism from Lutheranism when I was 21. I enjoy sunrise service on Easter, but a midnight service of nearly 3 hours would be quite taxing. When mass ended, I’d be singing the Hallelujah chorus for an entirely different reason. 😉


    • Oh my! I used to thoroughly enjoy the midnight mass experience. However, my knees don’t like kneeling long and my tush needs a cushion too. This happened close to 15 years ago. Don’t think I could do it now.


  2. I also think there is something very special about the pageantry and drama of a Christmas Eve service, Kate. I have attended many through the years, but as we have aged it’s harder and harder for me to “last” that late into the night and early hours of Christmas. Your willingness to compromise to accommodate your husband’s lack of enthusiasm and yet give up something you enjoy so well is a very loving act. I’m sure he appreciates it…and his “Ben Hur” comment is simply marvelous! I hope you both enjoyed a wonderful Christmas. You were together, and that’s quite special all on its own. 🙂


    • My compromise is not all that hard. I was younger then. Now I also find that staying up especially in an overcrowded, smelly church with incense enveloping me is very hard. I would love to hear the choir sing but at this point it’s too painful to go through all the other stuff.


  3. There was a brief period in my life when my mother had become born-again, and to humor her, I allowed her to talk me into joining the choir at church (actually, it was mandatory in order to live under her roof, but that’s another story). Anyway, we had a huge choral production for midnight mass, with months and months of preparation and practice, and even though we had gone through the process hundreds of times by the time Christmas Eve rolled around, there was something about the incense, and the Latin gospel, and all the folks crowded like sardines into the church … midnight mass was just electric with energy, and the Hallelujah chorus (that we also sang at the very end of mass) completely raised the roof right off the place. It’s been years (and years and years) since I’ve attended a midnight mass, but the memories of it still make the hairs on my arms stand up just a little bit. I loved your description of the smells and the side comments.

    I’ll share one quick story. My father, a non-religious man, and considered an evil person by most, was once coerced into attending a midnight mass. It was the result of him refusing to lose a bet, and he was trying to prove a point. We truly expected the entire place to incinerate on contact when his butt hit the pew. No fire and flames, but still, he clearly didn’t belong in a place of worship. I swear I could see a dark black aura surrounding the area where he sat fuming and muttering complaints. When the Hallelujah chorus began, he was fiddling with his necklace, probably feeling like the hands of God were circling his neck. All of the sudden, in a moment of absolute silence, everyone heard him curse very loudly, and all necks and eyes swung in his direction. Turns out the multi-layered necklace he was wearing, which was decorated with dozens of bits of turquoise and hammered silver, had exploded into a hundred moving parts, with beads and silver flying off in every direction. It was like a shower of color to punctuate the Hallelujah chorus. Very shortly after the Hallelujah chorus finished, mass was over, and people were exiting the church. I’ll never forget the image of my father, on his hands and knees between the pews, scrambling in every direction, trying to scoop up all the beads and bits of silver, muttering expletives the entire time. The rest of the family all shared a private joke amongst ourselves that God had found a way to put him on his knees in a church, one way or another. To this day, hearing the Hallelujah chorus still brings back the smile that crinkled the corners of my mouth that day. My father, on his knees. In church. And they say that miracles don’t happen? 🙂

    I should probably blog that story. Your posts about the Hallelujah chorus reminded me of that image of my father on his knees, in church. And how it always makes me smile. Always.


  4. Last night we watched “A Christmas Carol” with Rich Little doing all the characters. WC Fields as Scrooge was hilarious. It was done a long time ago, I found it on Amazon. If you need a good laugh, dial it in. You don’t need the wine to make that work!


  5. How funny. “White Christmas” is nice, though – something I look forward to…and a well sung Hallelujah Chorus. (A nice shorter candlelight service is a peaceful way to start…must be in a big old looking church to feel “right”)But that service would be a bit much for me….maybe on TV…Hope your Christmas is full of song and joy


  6. This is so funny and boy, can I relate. You’re right about the smells, and for many, besides Easter, it’s the only mass they ever make so many of them are drunk too…talking, giggling. Love the chariot line…the Husband Chronicles ensue.


  7. I LOVE the Hallelujah Chorus, and I’m pretty sure if I ever encountered a flash mob singing it, I’d be joining in myself!
    Have a very Merry Christmas, Kate – and a Happy New Year.

    Shimona, Trixie and Caspurr


  8. A grand Christmas story you should put into a book! I love the last lines…. “Our new custom is to watch the 1954 movie ‘White Christmas.’ It’s not quite the same but add some wine and it works.”


  9. The Beloved Husband was clearly smitten when he agreed to do the whole 3 hour…ordeal. Maybe there should be sections in the church, “Those who had garlic with dinner”, “Those wearing a floral scent”, “Those wearing a spicy scent”, hmmm…might be on to something…


  10. It my church it is a long standing tradition to sing the Hallelujah chorus at the end of the service on Easter Sunday. I have no idea why but it works then, too. We go to the 7 p.m. service on Christmas Eve, It works for us!


  11. Good for him for going, and good for him for speaking up, too. You’re right, it’s whatever is “normal” to you that’s of comfort at the holidays.

    Loved the video, and I’m a heaving, sobbing mess after watching it, too.

    Merry Christmas!


  12. This one REALLY tickled my funny bone. Outstanding descriptions of smells and sights. My children have converted to Catholicism from much simpler Presbyterian roots. When I do attend their services I try not to say anything to make them roll their eyes.


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