Well my looming nightmare has come and gone. I have survived another Christmas season in Toronto with my family. I thought I’d share with you a few of the highlights.
First of all, I have to state outright that my parents are not religious fundamentalists. 90% of the discussions I’ve had with my family about religion wouldn’t flutter an eyelash in a gathering of atheists. However, I have had to learn how to navigate a few minefields and pull up short in some places. For example, I finally got around to watching Jesus Camp (which scared the living piss out of me – this is the kind of shit those people say and do when the cameras are running; what do they do when it’s just fellow believers?), and paused to talk to my stepmother about it. She and I both marveled at how anybody could be so faith-blinded as to deny evolution, especially in such great numbers. And then she busted out one of my least-favourite lines:
But, you know, faith is completely illogical. You just have to accept that it might not make sense to you, but believe it anyway.
If any of my friends or acquaintances had made that statement, I would have probably pressed the matter a bit. But it’s my mom – what am I going to do? She’s a great person, has been incredibly loving and supportive, and doesn’t try to foist her personal beliefs on me – she was just asserting her own position on the matter. So I let it go.
I let a lot of things go this past couple weeks, actually. Every Christmas Eve I get together with my amazing cousins on my stepmom’s side. Coming from a small family, being transplanted and immediately accepted into a family tradition that goes back decades is a big deal for me. I look forward to Christmas Eve far more than Christmas Day (especially since the quality of presents from mom and dad have been slipping), because it’s a chance for me to be reconnected with the family, and to see the little niños running around (the oldest is now 6 and full of attitude).
A few years ago, we started doing a Secret Santa gift exchange, where each cousin gets another and we give a small gift. When the first year flopped (everyone got DVDs that they didn’t want) we decided instead to all combine forces and pick an item from the World Vision gift list. The following year we went back to the Secret Santa format, and each person picked a charity they would like to have a donation made to, the contribution to be made by the Secret Santa. It’s a pretty great idea, and this is the 6th year we’ve done it. In the past, I picked Hands Across the Nations, which is a Toronto-based charity that does development projects in Mali and Bolivia, one project of which I actually took part in back in 2007. This year I picked CFI Canada (cue the eye-rolling from those of you who are not CFI friendly) as my single act of atheist rebellion. My Secret Santa wrote “God Bless” inside my card, which makes me think that either a) she donated without reading the page or b) she loves irony as much as I do.
After the gift exchange, the family usually goes to Christmas Eve mass, followed by dinner. I was asked to go with my uncle to save pews in the church about 45 minutes before the mass started. I momentarily wondered if this was part of a campaign to steer me back to Catholicism, but decided it was far more likely that I was chosen because I am single and childless – nobody needed me to look after them.
And so it came to pass that I found myself sitting in a church pew on Christmas Eve with my head bowed. Luckily, prayer and light napping are indistinguishable. I stood when I was supposed to stand, sat when I was supposed to sit, didn’t say any prayers (although I did sing a few carols – those sumbitches are catchy!), and when came our turn to file up to receive the eucharist (the cracker) I stepped aside and let the family shuffle past me. Nobody said anything (one of my cousins frequently reads my Facebook, which is chock full of godless goodness, so I think they already know what my stance is), and no feelings were trampled on. Yes, I was in a Catholic church, which lends some implicit approval to their campaign of Palpatine-esque evil, but it was either contribute in a tangential way to a problem, or defiantly sit in my aunt and uncle’s basement and pick a fight. I don’t feel bad for selling out.
Christmas day, after gift exchange (I got a decent dress shirt/tie and a Cosby sweater) I went to pick up another set of cousins and bring them to the house. The two boys (who are 10 and 13) are, I was to learn, active in the Catholic church and a nearby Pentecostal church (I guess their mom doesn’t want to hedge her bets and pick the wrong Jesus?). I am, to my chagrin, actually the godfather of the youngest one, meaning that I am partially responsible for his religious education – methinks I spot an opportunity.
Out walking with the two of them by the lake near my parents’ condo, the youngest piped up with a story about someone he knows who is married to another man.
Him: He’s married to a boy!
Him: Isn’t that gay?
Me: Well I don’t have a dictionary on me right now, but yes I think it is. So?
Him: Oh… okay.
Ian: 1, Bigotry: 0.
On our way back, somehow the topic of ghosts came up. While I assured them that there’s no such thing as ghosts (I restrained myself from saying the words “holy or otherwise”), they made me promise that if I died and became a ghost, that I would come back and haunt them – I had to promise not to be too scary.
At dinner, while my family said grace (as is the custom in the household), I just sat and waited for them to finish. My cousin caught me not bowing my head (which means he wasn’t bowing his, but he’s 13, so he gets a pass) and gaped at me open-mouthed before blanching (as well as a black kid can blanch) and averting his gaze back to his clasped hands. His sister, a sharp-as-a-tack 19 year-old studying at York, knows that I am an atheist (she recently found my blog, which sparked an interesting discussion between the two of us), so I’m hoping that I started a bit of gossip.
Every year I struggle to get my parents something they’ll actually use. This year, inspired by Dr. Christopher DiCarlo, I got them kits from the National Genographic program, where using mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA mutations, you can track when your ancestors came out of Africa and where they went to. It was a bit of skeptical fun, but since my dad’s side of the family doesn’t know its geographical history beyond a few generations, it’s actually a pretty meaningful exercise for us. For my stepmom, it’s a way to solidify that we’re all part of the same family, regardless of where our parents’ parents were born.
Of course when my dad started talking about the lineage of the House of David and Joseph having to go to Bethlehem to participate in a fictitious census that happened in a time that never existed, I had to clam up again.
Anyway, the holiday came and went, and while I didn’t get my full athe-on I did manage to strike a more-or-less comfortable balance between non-participation and respect for my family’s beliefs. How was your Christmas? Did you manage to dodge a bullet, or did you have to drink deep of the eggnog of faux faith?