The Ox and the Ass

It all began in Bethlehem. Actually, I blame the Vicar’s visit to the Holy Land for the whole thing. You see, in Bethlehem the place they show off as the actual birthplace of Jesus is not a stable in the accepted sense of the word, but a cave. And so is the crypt of our church. Back in the fourteenth century the builders digging out the foundations came across this natural grotto about ten feet underground, which saved them a lot of bother and doubtless a penny or two.

‘Why not’, suggested the Vicar, ‘have the Christmas Crib down there? It’d be a lot more authentic and save taking up space in the church, and the Sunday School won’t knock it over like they did last year.’

I was all in favour; on wet days my foot still throbs where a three-foot plaster angel landed on it. So for the last two years that’s what we did. The Christmas Eve children’s service, with the Blessing of the Crib, became one of the highlights of the season. There are no pews in the crypt, of course, so the area in front of the crib was strewn with cushions for the tinies to sit on, and the rest of us stood behind them and sang carols by candlelight and everybody got very sentimental and dewy-eyed as successive moppets brought Daddy Joseph and Mummy Mary and the shepherds and the little baa-lamb and popped them carefully in their places.

The only person who didn’t like it was old Joe Hogson, the Verger. ‘Don’t ’old with all this modern carry-on’, grumbled Joe, ‘Kids clutterin’ the place up an’ that. I like proper services, I do, with processions and reverence and a bit o’ chantin’.’

Well, the rest of us liked it anyway, and as far as I was concerned the only problem on Christmas Eve was shoe-horning the vast bulk of the Vicar down the little spiral staircase to the crypt. We may not have a better quality of Vicar than any other Parish, but in the matter of quantity we’re on a winner. He must weigh a good twenty-two stone, but he doesn’t weigh himself very often because when he tries, he can’t see the scales. He reckons it’s over fifteen years since he last caught a glimpse of his feet, never mind what they’re standing on. That was the problem, you see. None of this trouble would have happened if the Vicar had been able to see his feet.

This last Christmas, then, Old Joe had achieved a compromise. He agreed to set up the Crib in the crypt as usual, but he wouldn’t come to the service. He’d been invited to spend Christmas with his nephew in Canada; and he knew there’d be plenty of chantin’ there, so off he went. And with him, absent-minded old fool that he is, went all his keys. Mostly, that didn’t matter, lots of us have keys to the vestry and so on; but there’s only one key to the crypt.

This we found out half an hour before the Christmas Eve service. We tried battering at the door, but there’s not much room at the bottom of a spiral staircase, and that door was installed in the Middle Ages, doubtless with brigands and battleaxes in mind, and we soon gave up that idea.

By this time the mummies and kiddies were starting to arrive, and the air was filled with the sound of infant lamentation. The Vicar sat brooding in a corner of the church, seven weeping tinies on his capacious lap, and as I watched him a look of firm resolve came over his face. ‘That crib’, he stated firmly, ‘is down to be blessed, and blessed it’s going to be. Lift the grating.’

Easier said than done. In the middle of the church aisle is a grating that ventilates the crypt. It’s about two feet square and had never been lifted in living memory. It took three of us with crowbars, but we managed in the end, and the Vicar blessed the Crib through the hole, with children perched all over him and the edge of the shaft. We lowered a lantern on a piece of string, and it was an unusual service, but almost as cosy as the real thing, and the kids went away happy.

Molly, the church cleaner, was pleased too. While the grid was up she had a chance to poke out all the things that had got stuck in it over the years; choirboys’ bubble-gum, deaconesses’ shoe-heels, no less than three wedding-rings, and a collection of coins dating back to 1536. Then we put the grid back in its place for the midnight service.

Christmas midnight is Joe’s kind of service, all processions and reverence. Most years it is, anyway. On this occasion we only got as far as the procession. The choir came first, chanting like crazy, then the Deaconess with a candle, then me taking Joe’s place as Verger, and the Vicar last as usual. And even the accident itself was commonplace to start with. The Deaconess got her heel caught in the grid again.

With an ease born of long practice, she stepped out of her shoe and marched on, limping slightly. With similar ease I bent down and picked up the shoe. I must have done it a dozen times before. Only this time the grid came up with it.

The Vicar was far too close behind me, and his stomach obscured his view of the floor. One minute he was there, a majestic figure in festival robes, the next he was in the crypt. And that was the end of that service.

Luckily, he fell on the cushions in front of the crib. His voice, evidently somewhat peeved, floated up to us. Echoing round the empty crypt, its words were undistinguishable. The Deaconess put her head down the hole. ‘Speak up, Vicar’, she exhorted, ‘The agnostics down there are terrible.’ ‘Get me out of here, you daft bat!’, roared the Vicar loud and clear.

But we couldn’t. The hole’s only two feet square. We put a ladder down, but there wasn’t room for a ladder and the Vicar. We tried hauling him up on a rope, but he was too much for us. We sent for the Fire Brigade. I don’t know why we bothered. Have you ever tried calling out a village volunteer Fire Brigade at midnight on Christmas Eve? After half an hour, three men turned up, one of whom was nearly sober.

In the end I sent everybody away, nipped home for a flask of coffee and a supply of mince pies, grabbed a bunch of candles and jumped in with him.

The local builder came on Christmas morning and lifted us out with a block and tackle. We spent the night there alone in the candlelight with Mummy Mary and Daddy Joseph and Baby Jesus: and the Vicar looked a bit like an ox, and I felt very much like an ass. But I think that for both of us dumb animals it was in a strangely comforting way the happiest Christmas Night we’ve ever spent.