Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Past, Christmas Present

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 “The god I don’t believe in isn't 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.



  1. I enjoyed this post a lot. Some things you say I see differently but as a whole, you have reached some of the same conclusions I have.

    Happy holidays and hope the new year is much better than this one for all of us.


  2. Great post, so many things I could respond to here - like no meat on Xmas Eve? But seven kinds of fish? Here in TX it's a sin *not* to have meat on the table. But I do get the point of having traditions to cherish and pass along: lovely links in the chain of memory.

    And on the theological/ mythological points you make, we are probably on the same wavelength there, though starting from very different points. Much more I could say on all you wrote, but I'll leave it for another time.

    BTW I apologize for leaving your name and a couple others off the list on my blog, which I've now corrected. Somebody passed me word from Wikleaks that you boys had been handed over to Father Spanker for correction, so I figured there was no point wishing you guys a merry Christmas.

    But further research shows that was just misinformation put out by the Vatican as a punitive, I mean pastoral measure. Figures.

    So expect to get a big candy cane from TX any time now. All the best to you and your hubby.

  3. Grandma said the Pope's brother was a fisherman, so several days, in addition to every Friday, were set aside as meatless days. The whole culture of holidays centered around food and family - and large extended families. My father had 6 siblings, my mother had 10. So holidays were gatherings of aunts, uncles, cousins, great aunts/uncles, second cousins etc. 30 or 40 people at my (maternal) grandma's nearly as many at dad's mother's. The modern family is so different. And our gay family of two (plus Benni) is nothing to compare. So much of religion and culture is interrelated.
    In any case, Happy Holidays to you Russ, and to all those who stop by.

  4. I absolutely loved this post. I am myself struggling with religion and appreciate reading the views of as many others as I can.

  5. Stopping by... Thanks for the good wishes for the holidays...

    Now, even though i think religion, as we know it, to be riddled with holes, i place a lot of stock in Spirituality.


  6. Thoughtful/thought-filled/thought-provoking post. Thanks for sharing this. By the way, just seeing how you describe yourself in your brief profile bio made me interested in reading what you have to say.

  7. Thanks for the feedback, guys. I really appreciate it.



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