25 December 2010

Adrian Fortescue's 1909 Christmas

About fifteen years ago, the late Michael Davies sent a Christmas card across the pond which contained the text of a letter by Adrian Fortescue describing his Christmas in 1909. If ever a man loved and lived the sacred liturgy Fortescue was one. How fortunate his people were. Thank God that today many priests emulate that same liturgical spirit. Enjoy.

A Christmas entry from Fortescue's diary.
This Christmas was perfectly glorious and heavenly to me... I think that perhaps the best time of all is just before it begins always - the end of Christmas eve and the beginning of the holy night. The grey twilight drew in, and all day (we) were busy decking the church and preparing, and I had lots of confessions to hear; and we ate our fasting supper very late... I stood in my room at my desk with the light of the green lamp on my books and white walls and did nothing but think and look out of window.

It was a heavenly night. Cold with a glimmer of frost on the grass and paths, and a bright moon sailing across the dark sky, and making strange shadows from trees, black and sharp across the silver; all black and silver underneath, and above the white quiet stars. I waited for matins alone and looked out over the silent night across the great field (over my fence) - stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.

And I saw again the long white twisting road that goes out from the Jaffa gate of Jerusalem, past Rachael’s tomb, to Bethlehem; and the market place, and there the Nativity church and the huddled roofs, and the quiet fields outside where they were keeping the watches of the night by their sheep.

It was very quiet and beautiful, and I thought of other years too and could hear the bells ringing for matins across the sea and mountains in the cold night air at Innsbruck.

And I said the prayers before Mass - strange to be saying them in the evening. At eleven the Church was lit up and warm and we began matins. All the singing was quite beautiful: the Invitatorium - Christus natus est nobis: venite adoremus - twined and curved and twisted like garlands of beautiful strange sound, in the IVth mode, across the church. Then the glorious Christmas hymn - Iesu redemptor omnium; we sang... the first nocturn lessons to the old German chant with wonderful neums... You know - the Isaias lessons: Puer natus est nobis & filius datus est nobis... & consurge, consurge Hierusalem... & ecce virgo concipiet et pariet filium et vocabitur nomen eius Emmanuel... And the second and third nocturn lessons, beautiful homilies of the old Fathers, Leo and Ambrose and Augustine and the Christmas psalms and the responsories to beautiful tunes I had made myself, and then just before midnight the Te Deum.

Then we went to the sacristy and I vested and we came round through the garden and in at the big doors. In the garden I saw the blue cloud of the incense against the moonlight sky and the tall cross black outline against the stars and the pale flames of the acolytes’ candles burning clear in the cold still air.

And we came up the church as they sang - quite beautifully - the Introit of midnight Mass, while the smoke of the incense and the black and silver cross slowly moved along. Then all that wonderful and strange Mass in the middle of the dark night. I sang the gospel about the shepherds and the crowd of the heavenly army, and the Christmas preface, under the dark garlands of holly and bay, while the thin white candles held up their flames among the lilies and chrysanthema and shone on the white corporal and silver chalice.

And the choir’s sanctus rang out across the silent night, and from the windows the light shone out into the dark outside. Then the silence and the bell and the Canon: “Communicating and remembering the most sacred night when the unspotted mother gave birth to the saviour of the world, and honouring the memory first of that same glorious virgin Mary, mother of our God and Lord Jesus Christ, and of thy blessed Apostles and Martyrs Peter and Paul, Andrew, James,....” And the long rows of my nice little people kneeling at the altar rails while I gave them Communion....

And at half past one I went to bed and did not sleep for excitement and saw it all again, and our dear Lady laying him in the manger - haec sacratissima nox.

I said the dawn Mass at eight, as the grey winter light shone in the east, and the third Mass at ten; and then was utterly done and tired, but frightfully happy as I ate my tea and toast. I did remember you too...and everyone I love, when I stood before my altar all white and gold and gleaming under the tall candles in the holy night...


  1. There is a very intimate aspect to the TM that is not found in the NO. It is not just the Latin or the Ad Orientem, for you can have that in the NO. Maybe it is due to the clarity given to the sacrificial and priestly aspect of the Mass.

  2. I am convinced that this is one of the loveliest of Adrian Fortescue's writings. Thank you for posting it.Alan Robinson

  3. Maryann Czarnecki27 December 2013 at 18:03

    How lovely! You are almost there to see the beauty and stillness of the night to be broken only by prayer and glorification to God. Can this ever be recaptured anywhere except in the reverence and actions of priests who are willing to sacrifice much to lead the laity to such loveliness in worship.