A large bowl of dried, semi-dried and not-so dried fruit sits soaking on my kitchen table, absorbing the plonk and orange juice I liberally dispensed a couple of nights ago. You know I love to bake, especially fruit cakes, but my Christmas fruit cake is so late that it’s seriously at risk of missing the big day, but with a week to go I’ll get it in the oven and iced by next weekend. As it has done for the past seven years, the recipe has had to evolve yet again. No pineapple to be found in anything other than cans. No glace, no dried. Necessity being the mother cooking, I took what was available and am experimenting with canned chopped pineapple (minus the juice). This cake is now so far from the original recipe – no chocolate, no palm sugar, a vastly different array of fruits and plonk – that it really no longer resembles its ancient forebear, an apt metaphor for the Yuletide itself.
I was raised in a Roman Catholic home, the youngest child in a large family. Sunday church was expected; the only leeway permitted was through illness, working the whole weekend or where it was geographically impossible to attend a service. Practice in my faith found me involved with youth groups and music ministries and consumed by what a friend I met many years later called ‘catholic guilt’ for all my many failings. If there’s one thing that I found in my practice of religion beyond how loving God is supposed to be, it’s that I could never be good enough, because I was born and would always be, a sinner. Talk about damning a child from birth. It’s a stark contrast to the concept of enlightenment that underpins the belief that we all have Buddha nature.
I’ve always had a tendency to befriend others with less than me. Like the smelly boy that everyone, even the teachers, ridiculed. His mother simply didn’t cope and his father was long gone. To this day, one enduring memory I have of my primary school days is of that smelly boy being forcibly carried out of the classroom by four teachers, a limb apiece. This in a catholic primary school that otherwise, imparted the most exceptional sense of equality among its multi-cultural students. In Australia, a country that prides itself on the ‘melting-pot’ of many cultures, it was the Australian child dragged from the classroom. To this ten year old girl, the scene was immensely distressing; I called this boy my friend, even if he did punch me when I was eight.
By the time I traveled overseas in my early twenties I was questioning religion. Living and working in Northern Ireland where Christian fought against Christian, I experienced first hand the constant overarching authority of the British Army and RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary). Now, let me be up front and say that I never encountered any problems with the RUC; they were professional and courteous whenever I crossed their path. Largely the army were too, but it was them that crouched hiding behind fences with their semi-automatic weapons, so that when I walked past I would find one trained upon me; it was the soldiers who, in the armoured four wheel drives, viewed me through their sights; one even said ‘bang’ just audibly enough for me to hear as the vehicle passed. This was Belfast in the early 1990s, toward the end of ‘The Troubles’. This is what those of my generation in Northern Ireland considered normal. They had never known any different.
I spent the first two weeks in Belfast terrified, until I decided that if I was to enjoy this jaunt I would simply have to get over my fear and live as if the army was not there. So I wore my loudest, psychedelic tights among the locals in their greys and blacks, I told the soldiers they weren’t doing much to make tourists feel welcome when I found they’d trained their guns on me and I found my Irish boyfriend keeping about ten feet away from me whenever I was in such a mood! My Aussie accent obviously startled the soldiers a few times; it’s somewhat satisfying to break the composure of one so highly trained with just a phrase! All the while, living in Northern Ireland, I was aware of where my place was, as a Catholic, even if I was Australian. I never wore my cross or claddagh in protestant areas, I made sure people heard my accent, I discussed the issues of life in the province only with people with whom I felt comfortable. I began as a spectator. I morphed into a local with my own opinions, gained from the very personal understanding about indoctrination, acceptance, bigotry, suppression, fear, self-preservation and protection, the sort of lessons that can only be gained through living in an a place where governance is so very in your face.
Northern Ireland was very much home for a time. I loved being there, but the rot had set in to my acceptance of religion. A few years later I learned a bit more about church ‘legalities’ and politics, leaving me teetering on the edge with my faith. The final nail in the coffin came when I noted the lack of concern from the community my parents had attended and worked within for over 45 years when both fell ill for a few months. Not even the priest visited them at home. That was the final straw for my own Catholic faith. I cannot abide Sunday Catholics.
In the years since, I have had fruitful discussions with Muslims whom I would call friends and attended Buddhist meditation sessions. I’ve worked with Hindus and Jews and now share my life with an Indigenous Australian man who calls both Muslims and Jews friends, has a penchant for philosophy, spiritualism and Greek mythology and still has his Dreams and honours those of his ancestors. I’ve learned of the origins of Channukah, a celebration commemorating the oil that lasted eight days after the Temple had been reclaimed from Antiochus IV, when it should not have stretched beyond one and tales of both Adam and the Hasmoneans that provide the foundations the Jewish observance of the feast that last year, coincided with Christmas. I’ve even learned a bit about Saturn and Mithra and the pagan feasts that preceded the Christmas and Channukah traditions. There’s much more to read there.
For me, Christmas is a celebration of family, friends and the shared humanity of all people. We can all take a day to forget the cares of the world, to be grateful for the people in our lives who bring meaning to our days, and to share a little with those who may not have the benefit of family. That does not require a belief in any religion, only a simple sense of gratitude and compassion. It’s good for the soul, something that whilst I follow no religious dogma, I still very much believe in. Christmas, Channukah or Saturnalia has always been a time of thankfulness for abundance, be it of family, oil or food, honouring whichever deity has dominated in the period. A Christian friend once commented to me that we are all traveling to the same place, aiming for the pinnacle of the same mountain, but we each take our own path. If our paths cross, I hope you’ll do me the courtesy of respecting my choice of direction, just as I will yours.