by Irene Lynxleg
Because of the great distances between communities in rural western Manitoba, our priest couldn’t attend each village for Midnight Mass. I remember when I was 10 years old it was his turn to come to our village.
That evening we got ready and dressed warm with our home made clothes, woolen coats, hats and mittens and brought wool blankets to cover and keep us warm for the sleigh ride to church.
The church with the little white steeple was the tallest building in the community. The steeple pointing to the sky looked like a lonely unicorn sitting on the snow waiting for company.
It was four miles from our farm; too far to walk. My dad and brothers hitched our two plough farm horses to the sleigh and attached bells to the harness. The sleigh had an open box with seats all around except on the front, where a large plank provided a seat for the driver.
Hay was scattered all over the floor of the box to keep our feet warm. It also served as the horse’s food during the service. The horses were brothers called Pat and Jim. They had beautiful black shiny coats and tails with white blazes and looked as though they were wearing tuxedos for a special occasion.
As they trotted pulling the sleigh their breath sent out streams of air like the old locomotives trains. Their tails swung and danced to the rhythm of the swinging bells which could be heard for miles, especially on a cold crisp winter night.
My oldest brother was the driver that night and Mom sat beside him. My Dad did not attend the service. His church was the woods where he would go alone to talk to his Creator.
On the trip we talked, laughed, sang and teased each other to make up for having to be silent during the service. When we arrived we tied up the horses and fed them and brought in our blankets to line the cold church pews. The wooden stove was too small and did not heat the whole church.
When we entered most of the people were already seated. Each family occupied one whole row of the church benches. The parents allowed their children to bring their home-made toys: sling shots, drums, flutes, little dolls dressed in leather and feathers. For snacks we brought dried strips of meat moose, deer, rabbit and bannock packed in empty metal Shamrock lard pails.
The Midnight Mass in my native community was a special Christmas event. The parents socialized after the service and the little children fed Baby Jesus their snacks. During confession time, the grandmas and mothers sang native hymns in the upstairs balcony.
They were called the Crepe Paper Singers because they could not afford to buy lipstick. The women used the red crepe paper that was used for Christmas decorations that was kept hidden behind the old organ in the church. They wet the red paper with their saliva, then applied it to their lips to transfer the deep red dye. I still remember one of the hymns the Crepe Paper Singers sang called ‘Jesus Has Arrived’ (in Saulteaux it’s ‘Aja A Binogee Jesus’). I used to sing it at Christmas for my grandchildren.
After the service we wished everyone a Merry Christmas, climbed into the sleigh for the ride home. As we rode along in silence I noticed it was very light out. I looked up at the sky and saw the evening star Venus, also called the Star of Bethlehem or the Christmas Star.
Opposite the Christmas Star a beautiful golden full Moon glowed. The moonlight lit up the snow-covered ground, and the crusted snow flakes were wearing sparkling diamond tiaras.
When we reached home, before we entered the house we smelt the aroma of cooking. Our father surprised us with a special midnight late dinner. On the table, instead of a turkey was a roasted beaver and from our root cellar he cooked onions, potatoes, carrots and turnips. We thanked the Creator for our wonderful evening and meal and quietly went to bed.
Now every Christmas when I see cards, churches with steeples, horses pulling sleighs and jewelers advertising diamonds, the sparkling snow wearing diamond tiaras, I think of my sleigh ride in the moonlight and my roasted beaver dinner.
If You Go:
About the author:
Irene Lynxleg was born on an Indian Reservation 77 years ago in Southern Manitoba (Tootenowazubeng). She was the only child on the reservation to complete Grade 8 but was subsequently sent to a Catholic Residential School. She lived most of her life off the reservation. She has been writing seriously with guidance from the Brock House Society for about 3 years. In 2015, Irene received the Cedric Literary award for First Nation’s writing.