Celebrating Your Family’s Faith At Christmas When You’re Fresh Out Of The Stuff
Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her King.
The piano crescendos and two hundred voices rise in varying tempos. Never having been one for group singing, I keep my mouth closed and watch the spectacle. An old woman somewhere to my left seems to be completely tone-deaf, but nevertheless she bellows the words at twice the volume of those around her. I look at the stained-glass figure of Jesus behind the pulpit and wonder if he is enjoying the show performed in his honour. My sister notices my disengagement and elbows me in the side. Sing she whispers. I open my mouth unenthusiastically but quickly close it again. The song has reached a key-change and the majority of the congregation are straining to stay in tune. In moments like these I do the only thing I can. I choose a spot on the wall and pretend I’m looking into a camera like on The Office.
Christmas is a strange time for me. I love the excitement and the presents and even the many hours spent with family. But it is the only time of year when I am forced to come face to face with my complete rejection of my parents’ religion.
My parents are protestant Christians, and so was I until I was old enough to decide my beliefs for myself. My childhood was peppered with religious activities; we went to church on Sundays, I went to bible camps and youth groups, and we said grace every night before dinner. When I had a problem, my parents would often encourage me to pray about it and trust in God to handle it.
But, as I got older, I realised that something about my parent’s religion didn’t sit right with me. Once I learned to think critically about things, I had to acknowledge that many of the church’s stances were different from my own fundamental beliefs. I didn’t agree with their position on homosexuality, sex outside marriage, and their approach to relationships in general, amongst other things. I also found the tight-knit community suffocating. Often, I felt there was a sort of fucked up competition for who was the godliest and most religious. Ultimately, I also just didn’t like being told what to think.
There was never any huge argument when I stopped going to church, but my parents made sure that I understood their disappointment. As the years passed and they realised that I wasn’t about to change my mind and revert, we lapsed into a kind of silent stalemate on the topic.
I fully support my parents’ decision to be religious, I just don’t want to be myself. And most of the time I do my own thing and it isn’t a problem. Except at Christmas. It is the one time of year when I will go to church with my parents. I don’t particularly like it, but I see it as a sort of familial obligation – a duty to fulfil. I mean, all families have their thing, right? My family’s is church.
Going to a church service of a religion I don’t follow is an odd experience. As I am sitting in the service, I am still self-conscious enough to care about other people’s judgements. I worry about other people thinking that I am a Very Bad Person for my otherwise year-round absence. I also resent the awkwardness that arises with people when they insist on commenting on my absence. I know that my decision to leave the church certainly played a huge role in the drift that happened between most of my religious friends and me.
But over time I have learnt how to deal with the annual church visit: smile politely, look attentive, go along with it. For the most part, I try and distance myself mentally from the happenings in the service. I know from experience that analysis of the sermon will lead to intense frustration on my behalf. It’s often easier to pass the time by reciting the words to Bohemian Rhapsody in my head.
The worst bit comes when the service is finished and the socialising starts. Here’s a hint: even when offered, don’t take a cup of tea. Because a young woman drinking tea must be in need of an awkward conversation, right? There are always a few old family friends who make a point of mentioning how I don’t come to church anymore. I haven’t seen you for years! Yeah, ok Julie, I specifically remember you saying the exact same thing to me last year.
But luckily, on Christmas Day people usually have better things to do than stand around and chat. Eventually everyone hurries off to prepare their meals and open their presents. When my parents are finally finished wishing a merry Christmas to all their friends, we are able to leave. I get in the car with the satisfaction that I have survived another visit to church… until next year.
Written by: Emma Sweeney
Image by: Coco