Saturday, December 24, 2005

Some things change

There are lots of things I don't miss about the Christmases of my childhood. And if I had to choose the thing I don't miss the most ("don't miss the most"??), there's a clear winner: the annual being-late-for-church fiasco.

Every year the Christmas service was held in the neighbouring parish church, not our local one, so the place was always full of strangers, and lots of them. And it seems to me now that for one reason or another my family was always late to get there. Every year. Every year. This would have been fine if we'd been allowed to skulk around in the foyer, or lean against the back wall, or hang around outside on the step, waiting for the whole thing to be over. But no, we were not that sort of family. We had to be seated. On chairs. In the church.

By the time we latecomers arrived, the congregation would already be seated on long pews, line by line by line down each side of the central aisle and all facing the front, where the minister would be standing in the pulpit, launching into his sermon. The five of us (our parents, my two sisters and I) would tiptoe into the foyer and hover, hoping to see somewhere to sit.

And maybe there were times when we were able to squish in next to others in the pews, but I can't remember this, because one particular year stands out in such horror that the memory of it now obliterates all the rest. This was the year the only place to sit was at the front of the church, to the side of the pulpit, next to the organist - in other words, in front of the entire congregation. We had to walk right down the aisle - the longest aisle in the universe - and the way I remember it, Dad or some of the elders had to scrounge around in an adjacent back room to find some chairs. While they did this, the rest of us huddled in a human knot out in the middle of the carpet, praying for a miracle (such as immediate self-combustion). When the chairs had been found and lined up against the wall, we had to sit there, in front of everybody else, watching the minister (maybe), or staring at the floor (more likely) or trying to hide in a hymn book (even more likely). Did I mention this was in front of everybody else?

And it was bad enough just sitting there in full view, but standing up to sing hymns was worse. Unlike the people in the pews, we had no back-of-the-pew-in-front to lean on or hide behind, no surrounding people for camouflage, no surrounding voices for strength in numbers - it was just us, standing in a row, backs to the wall. In front of everybody else.


Shyness makes you self-obsessed, I realise this now. It's quite likely that nobody in that congregation was watching us. It's also quite likely that we wouldn't have looked so strange or stupid anyway. We were just a family, sitting on chairs, doing the church thing. But in my mind, in my experience, in my memory: it was a Christmas nightmare. And here for me is the good part: I will never ever have to repeat that nightmare again.

Some bad things end.

Merry Christmas, Reader, and bless you, whether you do the Christmas thing or not. Let's hope for peace and joy.