For me, the story of Christmas began to unravel when I was around age ten. I loved the hymns and carols and candles and lights and Sunday mass in a church full of beautiful flowers and good friends. It was comforting and despite my personal epiphany, I’m glad my parents took me to church every Sunday when I was young.
But this particular year would be my last as an honest believer in Orthodox Christianity.
I remember sitting in the choir loft with my mom and looking down at the tops of all the ladies hats. I was playing my weekly game of guessing which hat belonged to which lady when the priest took to the pulpit and began his Christmas Day sermon about the birth of Baby Jesus. I knew the story by heart and although it was nice to hear again I was ten after all and not really listening. My good behaviour in church was inspired more by not wanting the wrath of my mother’s silent glare than interest in the good priest’s words. (My mother had a way of levelling whole buildings with a single raised eyebrow and I hardly wanted to find myself in trouble on a day like today.)
So listening to Father Harris that Christmas morning was more like skimming through a book you’d already read. My ears only picked out certain key words that let me know how the story was progressing so I could follow along and work out how much longer I had to sit quietly. Presents, opened and then abandoned to get dressed for church had my real attention.
Blizzard… Mary… no room… Joseph… barn… bright star… wise men… myrrh… the heavy scent of incense wafted up into the loft. It was not a pleasant aroma for me and I curled my nose into the folds of my mother’s choir robe and breathed in the softer smell of her white rose corsage. When younger, the combined chemicals of incense, multiple ladies’ perfumes, fresh-cut flowers and men’s cologne made me (literally) faint and I learned to sidestep that embarrassing event with a breathing-slash-counting game taught to me by my paediatrician. With face full of purple cotton I pretended to count the miles it took to get from our house in the city to my grandfather’s farm two hours south.
Shepherds… bright star again… so if the bright Christmas star appeared in the sky the moment baby Jesus was born and was used by the shepherds and wise men to guide them to the scene of the birth – how in the world did this all happen in one night? It took forever just to get to my grandfather’s farm and these shepherds were coming down whole mountains and wise men were riding camels into Jerusalem from deserts of far off lands – none of which could have been even remotely close to the manger in which Christ was born.
And wasn’t there a blizzard? How did anyone see the stars through a sky filled with rain and snow clouds? And if it took several weeks or months for these visitors to actually reach Mary and Joseph why were they still in the barn? One by one and thread by thread the warm, protective layers of blind faith began succumbing to the cold light of reason.
My mom was great. She told me some stories were told to make us feel better – to give us hope in troubled times. Stories taught us lessons in humility and generosity and helped us overcome greed and show compassion toward each other. It didn’t matter if the events surrounding the birth of baby Jesus happened all in one night or over an entire year – the lesson was about how no matter our differences, all living things can share the joy offered by the miracle of birth.
And as I watched my baby sister growing up I realised how some stories were told to keep children who couldn’t understand more sophisticated reasoning safe from the grown up things that could hurt them. Like shouting No! Hot! if you saw her walking toward the stove while mom was putting dinner on the table. At three a toddler can’t quite grasp the whole ‘mom’s cooking so you need to stay out of the kitchen for a while’ thing. But HOT can be grasped in an instant.
And although I can’t be one hundred percent certain, I’m reasonably sure that this is the premise upon which entire religions are based: Creating easy-to-understand rules that makes a cohesive society out of an otherwise nomadic, chaotic existence.
Humans need rules. I get that. I just believe we’ve sufficiently evolved past the need for the fairytale explanations our priests and politicians think we need in order to swallow the truth.
And sometimes I think I was smarter at age ten than I am today…