It’s Christmas, and time for another reflection on the holiday. When I was growing up, Christmas Eve was always a special day. Catholic tradition did not allow meat on the table. The day was filled with excitement and anticipation and good smells. Grandma would always make the fried dough with anchovies early in the day along with the fried fish (baccala and pesce stoca). Calamari, smelts, eel and flounder completed the seven fishes of Christmas Eve. Midnight Mass followed by coffee and Christmas cookies and opening a gift or two rounded out a busy feast.
For years I kept up the food traditions, sometimes substituting Baked Stuffed Shrimp but never omitting the fried dough. This year, I made the fried dough with anchovies and a few bites of fried fish to pass around. Followed by a very non-traditional pizza with sausage and pepperoni. Mere remnants of a tradition.
Christmas is fraught with contradictions and internal conflicts. You all know I have issues with religion in general and, I suppose, with Christianity and Catholicism in particular. But, in contrast to others who criticize religion with bitterness and contempt, or attempt to refute the validity of religion with science and logic, I take a different stance. One cannot dismiss the stories and myths of religion on the basis of their lacking historical evidence or scientific fact. That is to miss the point and purpose of storytelling entirely.
A public radio personality recently recited an essay on “Why I am an atheist”. While she made her point somewhat sardonically, my response was “I don’t believe in the same god that Chion Wolf doesn’t believe in, but that’s not to say there is no god, or that I am an atheist.”
What many atheists and anti-religionists object to is the institutional orthodoxy that has developed to insure that followers of a particular religion or sect all hold to a uniform set of beliefs (and to exercise a degree of control). This, I think, is even true of those who insist on a personal or individual interpretation of written scriptures and stories, insofar as such interpretations results in dogma or fundamentalism of some sort or another. An infinite number of orthodoxies might be possible by mixing literal and interpretive beliefs based on various religious texts.
Just because the sun, earth, plants, animals and humans could not have (scientifically) come into existence in seven “days” does not mean that the creation myth should be dismissed out of hand. Just because virgins do not ordinarily conceive children does not mean that the story of the virgin birth is devoid of meaning.
Perhaps those who wrote the story of Genesis did not mean for us to get stuck on “how many days” it took the creator to complete the job, but the idea that all existence is unfathomable, and that, however it may have come about, “it is good”. Perhaps the writers of the Christ-myth did not mean for us to get stuck on whether a virgin could give birth, but on the possibility that the unfathomable may be quotidian, and in our midst in the most unlikely of circumstances, and in the most unlikely of persons. Perhaps they mythologized the person Jesus to emphasize a point – this guy had some pretty radical stuff to say about orthodox religion.
Too bad we, as a social organism, need the illusion of the certainty of our beliefs; and that those beliefs create “us’s” and “them’s” and lead to hatred, violence, wars, greed, personal attacks, internal conflict and even murder and suicide. It is hard to believe that those same beliefs compel others to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, and tend to the sick and prisoners. I find it difficult to understand how this is so. I think therein is where my personal issues with religion lie.
The Catholicism that I grew up with was not the Catholicism that condemns me now as a gay man. The Catholicism that informed my childhood and adolescence included stories my grandmother told about having to feed her family but sharing half the Christmas roast turkey with a family next door whose little boy was crying from hunger. Or how she fed the families in the six-tenement house my grandparents owned, even though the tenants could not even pay their rent and though my grandparents would eventually lose the house in the end because of it. When she was in her eighties she would walk almost half a mile to church but sit in the back row because it was so physically difficult for her to go any further.
There were stories my mother told of her (and dad’s) faith despite the many years she spent in the TB sanatorium and through many more years with the aftermath of TB when dad cared for her. There was my grouchy Aunt Stella, who, into her eighties and suffering from severe arthritis, told us that the pain was so intense that sometimes she could not even tear off a piece of Saran Wrap to cover a bowl of pasta, and looking up said “but I ask his help and I do it, I do it with his help.” There was the story of my aunt Mary who asked to move to another room in the nursing home – not, as her daughter assumed, so she could be closer to the cafeteria - but as Mary said “No, so my brother Dom doesn’t have to walk so far when he comes to visit”.
These are stories, not quite so grand as the Biblical myths, that convey faith and values and have meaning for me. I am sad that I do not share the simple faith of my grandmother, my mother and father and my aunts. Perhaps it was too naïve a faith for a college educated fool like me.
And so I pass another Christmas, looking upon all the commercial trappings of the holiday, the artifacts of religion surrounding a celebration of the birth of a Religious Rebel, and knowing that I am not welcome at the table in the home I grew up in; knowing I no longer believe in the dogma or orthodoxy of Catholicism or Christianity; knowing also that the stories of faith, like the fried dough with anchovies, are the last remnants of Christmas.