“Church is the worst bit of Christmas.”
As an adult, I realise the irony of that statement, given the whole Jesus’ birthday aspect of Christmas.
But as a child, stuffed into an itchy woolly jumper and and dragged away from my shiny new toys into a drab, draughty church on Christmas morning, I thought the whole sombre ritual a cruel punishment after being a good wee girl all year round.
But we had to go, because my gran said so.
Rarely listening to the low drone of the call-and-response Catholic mass, all to do with lambs and sins, I’d amuse myself instead by eyeing the Stations of the Cross which were carved into the walls, just below the ceiling.
I could never remember the ‘real’ story, so I’d make different ones up each week, based on the faceless figures and the positions of their eerily long limbs.
Or I’d fixate in wonder on the pristine, white French roll of the old lady who usually sat in front of us, held in place by a mesmerising crystal pin. Her hair was so reliable – always right there, in front of my face, each and every Sunday.
Maybe what I got out of her hair is what some people got out of religion.
My favourite part was when the altar servers would tinkle their tiny wee chimes and then Stuff Would Happen.
People would move, or the priest would do something other than drone – he’d start chanting, and I believed he believed what he was saying, for a minute.
On Christmas Day, during the Communion procession, a little extra time would be allowed for people to stop and admire the shabby, but still elaborate life-sized Nativity scene that would be constructed next to the altar.
I loved the porcelain donkey; he had very sad eyes, and I always wanted to pet his cold ears.
Then after the service, which seemed to go on even longer than usual when the promise of cherry cake waited at home, we’d go up to the front, and I’d get to drop a clattering 50p piece into the tin so my gran could light a candle for her mother, and her sister, and her dad.
It smelled nice there, but I couldn’t tell if that was the tealights or the mad incense that Father Leo had been wafting about.
Come to think of it, I actually didn’t mind going to mass all that much. I just didn’t get the whole God bit.
Church has no place in my Christmas now
These days, my gran is gone, and I haven’t stepped foot inside a Scottish church in years, other than to attend funerals.
But whenever I go abroad, I visit the churches in other places.
Somehow, it feels easier to see a church as an example of stunning architecture and enjoy its comforting familiarity when the scriptures which I’ve spent so long unknotting from my brain are in a foreign language.
But the truth is, churches are necessarily religious, no matter how little attention you pay to the words.
And the fundamental divisions between my own moral compass and the teachings of the faith I was baptised into have meant that in adulthood, church isn’t the worst part of Christmas – it’s no part of it at all.
That’s never made me sad; it’s just the way it is. But this week, the Vatican made a landmark announcement which lit the tiniest wee tealight in my lapsed heart.
Same-sex blessings is huge step forward
Pope Francis has approved blessings for same-sex couples, for the first time in the Catholic Church’s history.
And at a point in my life where I thought I was past caring what a hypocritical, scandal-ridden, disgustingly opulent organisation does or doesn’t say is OK, I was surprised to find myself excited by this news.
It’s still a thousand steps behind what I’d consider a progressive society, but having spent the first 17 years of my life steeped in the musty drudge of faith, I know it’s a huge leap forward for Catholic communities.
I still won’t be attending church on Christmas morning – the gap in ideologies is still too large, albeit smaller now.
But the thought that queer people and their families might find some ease in their hearts at Christmas Day mass this year has healed up a bit of me that misses that donkey, and those tealights.
And it’s given me hope that this Christmas, maybe humanity is moving in the right direction.