Creatures Great and Small

I remember playing golf at this time of the year when I was a kid. By the end of October, Bangor Golf Club in County Down, Northern Ireland, was usually pretty sodden, and come Christmas it was either a quagmire or frozen solid. It didn’t matter to us, though; we played anyway. Or maybe we plowed — there wasn’t much difference.

We had 18 temporary greens, which were just crude circles mown in the fairway short of the real greens, and due to the roughness of the putting surfaces, the holes were doubled in size. A 10-footer would have been a tap-in if it hadn’t been for the worm casts and the gouged evidence of wedges past.

In the British Isles, you see, it takes more than a little mud to dull the enthusiasm of the average golfer, who is a good deal hardier (and possibly dafter) than his American counterpart.

“I’m off to the club for nine holes, dear!” my father would shout as he collared Daly, the German shepherd, and me on his way out the door. A few minutes later, I’d be carving foot-long divots out of the practice ground while he and the dog watched from the snug.

My dad has always had the constitution of a yak and would play in his shirtsleeves even in December, but he was at least equally inclined to toss down a few Famous Grouse instead. You know, somebody has to drink the stuff.

The thing that was so different about back then and there was that Christmas would be upon you before you knew it. Here and now, Christmas, or at least the ghastly commercial part of it, is being forced down our necks while we’re still burping back Thanksgiving. I’m not sure about any of you, but I don’t want to hear “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” every day for five weeks straight, especially not in the locker room. When is deer season, anyway?

(For the purpose of this article, I’m assuming that it’s early December, your halls are already decked with boughs of holly, you have a beard rash from being relentlessly cornered under the mistletoe by your maiden aunt, and there is at least one indelible clot of pine sap attached to a piece of your furniture. It’s probably the sofa upon which nobody ever sits; you know the one, in the front room where your greasy Frito hands are never allowed to set except on Christmas Day, when you force that queasy smile and open those packages of socks and the too-short haddock necktie. “Oooh, look! It’s another nostril trimmer from the Sharper Image!” — which is really just Radio Shack at twice the price.)

It’s still weeks until Christmas, but I’m guessing your bells, like mine, are well and truly jingled by now. It lasts so long, or is it just me? Already my children are like packs of gremlins, hunting me down and shoving grubby little wish lists up my nose as I sleep.

I grew up in Ireland, where there was always a sense of anticipation as the days of December slipped toward the 25th, but the whole thing was so minimal by comparison to the evilly coordinated Madison Avenue assault that parents have to endure these days.

Christmas used to be a simple, family affair with a nice church service and an exchange of gifts. Now it’s a 30-day fat boy, reindeer, and elf-fest, with death by caroling everywhere you go. More than a week of caroling will make your mid-winter seem bleak, all right, and the frosty wind isn’t all that’ll be moaning if you’re hanging around me. Another few days of “Joy to the World,” and I’m liable to drag one of those joyful, tin mug-waving cretins into the Disney Store and give him a good wassailing, whatever the hell that means.

I remember (dear God, I’m starting to sound like my dad) many wonderful Christmas moments from my childhood, in the days before it was a circus. Christmas, that is — my childhood was always a circus. I was the head chorister in the church choir (I was, too, you cynical swine), and occasionally we used to visit other churches around Christmastime to see if we could yell to the music louder than they could.

I was one nasty little treble, and there was a definite air of competition when my team played an away game. Every year, there was this one church that went the whole hog — or donkey, rather — with their nativity scene, which they set up at the top of the chancel steps. Everyone was very proud of it. It had the straw in the crib, a couple of tranquilized sheep, a beagle for some reason, and a tiny, rather bloated-looking, brown-and-white donkey.

There was a cardboard shepherd and everything, and it was all right there, just a few feet in front of my choirboys and me as we finished the processional hymn. We took our seats. There were no wise men, I noticed, and not a virgin in sight. Then again, we were in Ireland, so what were the odds?

There was the usual kerfuffle, clearing of throats, and blowing of noses as the congregation settled itself down in the pews for the first words of the elderly rector, who hobbled his way painfully up into the pulpit and raised his palms toward the heavens.

“We lift up our voices to the Lord,” he said, and smiled benevolently down at his flock. Smiling benevolently back, the people opened their mouths to lift up their voices when the wee donkey suddenly let rip with a thunderous, cannon-like fart of such velocity that the poor animal had to skitter and clip-clop around on the tiles for a moment in order to keep its balance.

Dear Lord, the mouths of the people were open, but not a sinner amongst them did speak. Verily, it was as if the ass had struck them dumb.

For a few seconds, the unholy silence was ruptured only by the ghostly remains of the blast as it echoed around the ancient vaulted ceiling, but, alas, there was worse to come. To my eternal credit or damnation or whatever, I managed not to burst out laughing immediately, but then the donkey dropped a whopper onto the mosaic in front of us, where it landed with a loud “SPLOT.”

It was the look on the rector’s face that did me in. St. Paul probably got less of a shock on the road to Damascus, and if I remember correctly, his donkey got struck by lightning. I flat out split my peas. Maybe the devil made me do it, but I laughed so hard I nearly asphyxiated myself and one of the younger boys vomited on his cassock.

There were more tears shed that day than that church had seen in a year of funerals, and I believe ours were considerably more genuine than those of the average mourner. The rector had to wipe his glasses off twice, and his first attempt at speaking resulted in an uncontrollable snorting fit as he slapped the pulpit with the flat of his hand.

Lordy, Lordy, but someone up there has a sense of humor, and definitely works in mysterious ways. That day, the collection was a new parish record, and there were a number of requests for a matinee. They took photographs of the donkey (which was deemed to be far too dangerous for children’s parties) and made a stained-glass window of the scene. It was very stained, by all accounts.

Well, anyway, I would unreservedly apologize if the preceding account has offended a single soul (although it would be a first for this column if it hasn’t), and it is with tearful supplication that I beg forgiveness for the fact that, as usual, this piece has had nothing to do with golf. I have no idea why it went where it did, but I hope it gave you a chuckle. Think of it as an early Christmas present, if you like, from me to you. Yeah, I know, it’s too early. How hypocritical is that?

And thank you for your mail, even from those of you who think I’m a moron. You’re wrong, but, like I tell my kids, at least you’re reading. Have a happy, safe, and peaceful Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or whatever you like to call it, and if you have one, may your God go with you — and his wee donkey, too.