The day before Christmas break at our Catholic school was the best day of the year. Not only did we get to leave at twelve o’clock, but our teacher would give everyone in the class a special box to take home. The boxes were filled with colorful hard candy, some in the shape of swirly ribbons and some like little pillows with sharp corners. We would all line up to get our gifts from Sister, who stood at the front of the room and appeared to be happy and kind in a way that we’d never seen before, and wouldn’t see again until the very end of the school year in June. She mentioned that sometime before dismissal, Monsignor might come in to wish us a Merry Christmas and give us his blessing.
Monsignor, in case you don’t know, was the head priest of the parish. He dressed in a black cassock and wore a special hat that was black with maroon trim. If he ever appeared unexpectedly, we would all snap to attention, our eyes as wide as if the Statue of Liberty had jumped off her pedestal and walked into the classroom. All conversation would stop in mid-sentence, and any chewing gum that happened to be lurking in our mouths would be instantly swallowed.
We were in the fourth grade. Row by row, we went up to get our boxes of candy and say thank you, Sister, and have a Merry Christmas, Sister, and Happy New Year, Sister. (Every sentence we spoke to her had to end with “Sister,” even if it was just the two of us in the room and she knew you were talking to her. Whenever she addressed us as a group, we seemed compelled to fall into an irritating, slightly out-of-sync sing-song response that I’m sure, at least on occasion, drove Sister to have thoughts about us that were less than holy.) We were soon back at our desks, which were made of wood and had a compartment inside where we stored our books and pens, and where we stashed our baseball cards if we thought we were about to get caught with them. Twice a year — right before Christmas break and on the last day before summer vacation — we cleaned out our desks and took all of our junk home because the school had to be swept and mopped and scrubbed so it was nice and clean for when we came back. But we weren’t thinking about coming back. We were thinking about weeks of glorious freedom, unhindered by heavy textbooks and bland uniforms.
It’s important to mention here that we weren’t supposed to eat any of the candy until we were out of the school building. On this particular day I was chewing gum, because I was a maverick and a fiercely rebellious young man. (Not really. But I had found an unopened pack of baseball cards while cleaning out my desk, and I’d slipped the flat, brittle, pink, sugar-dusted slab into my mouth while Sister was still handing out the boxes.) Feeling outrageously defiant and maybe a little delirious from holiday anticipation, I opened my box and removed one of the pieces of pillow candy and popped it into my mouth. Five seconds later, who walked in but Monsignor! Worst of all, for some impossibly unlucky reason, he seemed to be looking directly at me. Monsignor. Staring right at me, the little idiot maverick with a mouth stuffed full of bubble gum and hard Christmas candy. I did the only thing I could think of. While the rest of the class was chanting the mandatory “Good mor-ning, Mon-seen-yer,” I quietly swallowed the evidence. Then, while one of the other students carried out the honor of asking Monsignor to bless the class, the hard pillow-shaped candy lodged itself in my throat, each of its four sharp corners resting perfectly and uncomfortably in the inner walls of my esophagus. I didn’t know where the bubble gum had gone and, struggling to stay alive, didn’t care. I tried to cough up the candy, but the more I coughed, the more I could feel its corners pressing in for the kill. By now Monsignor was in the middle of his blessing: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…” And I was sure that any moment I was going to fall over dead and go straight to Hell for being deceitful, and for interfering with the circulation of grace. Worse, I feared that some of my friends, seeing that the Monsignor’s blessing had killed one of their classmates, would abandon their own faith and join me in eternal damnation. Then the Devil, in all his wickedness, would point to me and explain to the others how they’d ended up in the fires of Hell, burning and screaming for mercy until the end of time.
I leaned forward, my eyes dripping and my skin drenched in sweat, and prepared to exit the world. I was barely nine years old and had lived a short and good life. But I had also failed to resist temptation, and now I hovered near death, with Monsignor no doubt believing me to be simply lost in silent prayer.
Then, as my forehead touched the desk, the candy pillow fell onto my tongue. I opened my eyes and allowed it to slip from my mouth, and sat up just in time to see the back of Monsignor’s cassock as he left the classroom.
Having escaped death, the tortures of Hell, and even a scolding from Sister and Monsignor, I ran home and presented the box of candy to my mother. She put it out on Christmas Eve, no doubt expecting me to eat most of the box, but I couldn’t even look at it. Still, it was a joyous time. I had confronted my own mortality and was savoring life.
To this day, whenever I see that hard Christmas candy, the swirly ribbons and the pillows with the sharp corners, I sense a lump in my throat, and my eyes water just a bit. I get a similar but much more pleasant feeling when I think of how this blog has allowed me to make new friends, and to reconnect with a few old friends — including at least one who sat in that fourth-grade classroom long ago, looking forward to the long holiday and blissfully unaware of a sweet little miracle taking place just a few desks away.
I hope your holiday is filled with sweet miracles, too. Be safe, and Merry Christmas.
ANSWERS: (1) There’s only one Wise Man, and the expression on his face does little to suggest wisdom. (2) The camel appears to be rolling his eyes. Camels can’t roll their eyes; they show impatience by twitching their humps. (3) The boxes of candy are on the floor. Sister would never do that. (4) The students are wearing street clothes, and summer clothes at that. (5) Rosemary Palladino, the blonde-haired girl on the right, is in a pink dress. Rosemary hated pink. (6) The clock says ten minutes to two. We were supposed to get out at noon.