It was my father’s first Watch Night Service. He lived in the Pearce Institute in Govan, Glasgow at that time which was in the Church halls of Govan Old Parish Church where he was the assistant minister. There had not been a bombing of the nearby shipyards for several months and it was a generally felt that a Christmas truce seemed to be on the cards.
The Church Officer was Sam Hall, a conscientious and very particular Church Officer, but one who wore a serious and sad countenance. The only times he had been known to be cheerful were on the days his beloved Partick Thistle Football Club in his native Maryhill had won. As it happened, as well as being Church Officer, Sam Hall was my father's landlord, and his good wife Ina, was his landlady.
The Minister, Rev. Dr. Stewart Thomson informed my father, James that he had decided to go home to his manse in Pollokshields and not wait for the Watchnight Service. He explained that it was customary for the Youth Fellowship to hold a Xmas Eve Dance in the Institute. The dance would end at 11pm. and the Youth Fellowship would go over to the Church for the start of the Watchnight Service in the Steven Chapel at 11.30pm.
The Steven Chapel was a small side chapel with seating for perhaps a hundred. It was set apart from the main church which is of Cathedral architecture and proportions, with seating for well over 1,000 in the nave.
Dr Thomson gave James an Order of Service with instructions as to the conduct of the Service, and left for home. There would be little ceremony about the service as it was for only the Youth Fellowship. There would be no office-bearers on duty, and no offering was to be taken on Christmas Eve. Sam Hall and James were left in charge.
Govan Old Church had been built without a bell, as there was not enough money to build the projected belfry. Consequently, they used a gramophone recording of a carillon of bells, attached to an amplifying system. When the wind was in the right direction, the Govan Carillon was clearly heard across the river Clyde in Partick.
Sam came to James and told him. ‘We’re on our own. We’re going to have a great service.’
This seemed to James the most unwarranted optimism as it was he who had to conduct the service, and with the minimum of preparation. But Sam was unusually happy that night - and inspired.
‘Get on with it and make it your best’ he told him, and hurried away with a broad but secretive smile.
By 11pm James was ready and he went over to the Church and down to the vestry which was deep down beneath the Church. It was always peaceful there. Not a sound penetrated. One could not even hear the carillon of bells.
At 11.30 he was ready to climb the stairs to the church building and proceed to the wee side chapel for the service, but climbing, he was met by a very harassed yet happy Sam.
‘Get back down these stairs’, he ordered.
‘What’s wrong?’ James asked.
‘The Chapel’s full,’ he said, ‘I’m fitting in extra chairs. I’ll come when I’m ready.’
So back James went to the vestry, and waited, and waited.
Just before Midnight, Sam appeared and said, 'Right! We’re ready. Now Speak Up. The Chapel’s full I’ve jammed in another fifty chairs.’
‘Then why didn’t you let them overflow into the church? They might not see as well but at least they could hear.’ James asked.
‘What do you think I’ve done?’ asked Sam. ‘The church is full, and they are standing. The back gallery and transept gallery are full. There’s at least two thousand in the Church. You’ll no see them all, but they’ll hear you.’
James never forgot that service. The heartily sung carols or the way his hand was wrung when the service was over. A mass of wonderful people attended. Protestants, Catholics, but for the most part, people who normally would never enter a church; men and women in forces uniform representing many different nations and men and women in the green uniform of Corporation bus drivers and conductresses, ship yard workers, young and old, respectable and some less respectable, sober and the not so sober.
There had been no collection taken but the happy congregation on that Christmas morning wanted to give - and nothing would deter them. Money was left all over the place. They found collection plates and filled them.
It took several hours to count the collection that night but when that chore had been done, James confronted Sam and asked him how this had come about.
‘Well,’ said Sam still smiling in the early hours of Christmas Morn, ‘I had gone to the Youth Fellowship Dance. I asked the young folk there if they had any good Christmas records and someone brought me Bing Crosby singing Silent Night. That’s when the idea struck!’
‘What do you mean, Sam?’
‘Well, as Dr Stewart was not attending and you were so new, I decided that we’d give the carillon of bells a rest for this special night. So I played Bing singing Silent Night. But of course with the amplifier up at full, Bing was heard in Partick and Annisland and Dumbarton! They came from all the tenements around too.’
Bing Crosby had drawn people like a magnet. Sam’s inspiration had worked a miracle.
Next morning, Christmas day, was Christmas communion. Rev Dr Stewart Thomson arrived and heard about the Miracle at Midnight.
‘Put on that record again for the Communion Service, Sam’, was the order.
Sam did, but the miracle didn’t happen again.
Christmas Day in Glasgow 1944 was an ordinary working day.
As told by Rev James Caldwell MA 1916-1995 to his son, Miller Caldwell
Christmas 1944 seems so far away. I wonder how many of the congregation that night were preparing for the final five months of World War II. Of course times have changed and the novelty of a record could not have a similar impact in our lives today but maybe just maybe, this story might cheer an armed service soldier this Christmas, so far from home in the Middle East. Haste ye back.