Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Christmas Story

When I was eight years old I was baptized as a Mormon. It should go without saying that this was not a faith based initiative.  My parents indulged but did not necessarily support my association with the Saints. My step-father will tell you that the only reason I pursued the baptism was because I coveted some cheesy religious coloring book that Jennifer Murray had gotten when she had been baptized earlier that year. This rather old joke has begun to piss me off because not only does it insult the earnest nature of my youthful heart, but it’s also a God damn lie.

The simple truth is I went to church and got baptized because all my friends were going to church and getting baptized. And I was only invited to play with them so long as I was doing exactly what they were doing in terms of church going and baptized getting. Such is the 'inclusive' nature of the Mormon faithful.

Already I digress—

Before I was baptized I was required to sit through an interview with the ward bishop. I was told the purpose of the interview would be to assess my virginal purity the readiness of my testimony. But I’m reasonably certain that the real reason I was there was for some preliminary indoctrination into the duty of tithing.

My mom was asked to join us. She sat, impatient but quiet, in the back of the room with (I can’t remember precisely, but I’m pretty sure he was there) my step-father.

Like I said, I don’t remember the exact details, but the conversation must have gone something like this: Brother Bishop asked, “Do you know how much money is in your piggy bank, JEDA?”

“Um, I don’t know. Maybe like $5.00?”

“And, JEDA, do you know how much 10% of $5.00 is?”

And I’d have been all like, “Dude, do I look like someone who enjoys math? I, um….I thought there would be more coloring….”

One of the last questions he asked—this part I remember clearly—was, “Can you name any of the Ten Commandments?”

Keep in mind I was only eight years old, and religion was something I did on my own time—my parents wanted no part of it. Up to that point, primary school had been a whole lot of singing about sunbeams, and kicking the chair in front of me while reverently folding my arms and pretending to pray. So I knew the Ten Commandments had something to do with Moses, but specifics beyond that were not exactly etched into the chalky tablets of my instant recall files.

Until—inspiration—possibly the Holy Ghost, though I felt no burning—struck!

“Ooo ooo ooo! I know one!”

“Very good, JEDA. Which one have you remembered?”

“Thou shalt not commit adultery!”

I'm not exactly sure why I said it.  I know that I didn’t know what the word “adultery” meant. At the time, it just sounded like an impressively grown-up word. And I collected such words back then—hoarded them in my pockets like cinnamon bears, waiting for odd moments to pull them out, chew on them a bit, then let their spicy goodness spill over my tongue and into the dull lapses in adult conversation. Such words had power—though I didn’t know why, and I used them frequently as a kid.

Of course, adult me is embarrassed on my mother’s behalf for the broad innuendo her child left hanging in the middle of the room like an unclaimed fart. Adult me can still hear the stiff shh-shh of corduroy as three pairs of adult legs nervously uncrossed and re-crossed waiting for the taint of it to dissipate. Adult me knows how badly my mother must have wanted to stand up, to explain, to clarify, to excuse, “Kids these days! She’s just showing off. Honestly. It means nothing…”

Well, rest easy, poor put-upon mother. It’s been a long time coming, but last week your grandchildren—my own dear babies—conspired to exact your fitting and ironically just revenge upon me.

Heads up, Trace. You’re going to like this part.

Last Thursday night Elder Miss’s art class invited parents and siblings to come in for the last 30 minutes of class to share a piece of cake and a cup of Christmas cheer.  It being an art class, they had decorated the room to the nines with tin foil, candles, and a motley assortment of tinsel scraps. Once everyone had found a seat and a bit of food, the teacher welcomed us and said she thought it might be fun to share some of our favorite memories or ideas about our various Christmas traditions.

“What’s the first thing you think when you think about Christmas?” she prompted as she set the ball rolling around the table.

“Presents! Vacation! Pinnekjøtt*!” came the typical responses, “Pinnekjøtt? No! It has to be lutefisk**!” And thus the conversation found itself focusing around holiday food, and a lively debate ensued amongst the parents.

All was light, all was merry—then came EM’s turn.

“And you, EM? What does Christmas mean to you?”

There was a long pause. So long I thought for sure she had chickened out, so I was about to rescue her by throwing turkey into the mix, when she suddenly found her voice and blurted out, “Jesus.”

"Ah.  Mmmm-hmmmm. Yes,” said the teacher, suddenly sober and careful, “Of course many people think a lot about Jesus this time of year. How about your little sister?” she hunched down and peered expectantly at Missy, “What do you think the best thing about Christmas is?”

Missy, of course, didn't miss a beat, “Jesus is borned!” she exclaimed triumphantly, throwing her arms victoriously overhead.

It should have been cute--funny--but no one seemed terribly amused.  Say what you will about not forgetting the true reason for the season. But Norwegians, by and large, are a secular bunch, and—trust me on this—they don’t want to hear it, especially when the topic of the relative merits of pinnekjøtt vs. lutefisk is on the table.

“Oooo-kay. Of course.” said the teacher, more careful than ever, “How about your brother?" turning to Boy,  "Anything you particularly love about Christmas?”

I found myself silently pleading with Boy, “Say presents. Say Santa. Say ‘jingle bells Batman smells’. Say anything but…..”

“Jesus is king,” said Boy quietly, but firmly.

What is the sound of eyebrows rising?  Of every eye in the room collectively rolling heavenward to find only a tangle of strung fairy lights to bare witness to their mutual exasperation of the overly pious at Christmas time?  It was the only sound in the room just then, yet it was thundering in my head like herd of hunted reindeer.

It was my turn next.  The teacher--she didn’t want to ask.  You could tell.  Little did she know, however, all I wanted to do was stand up, explain, clarify, excuse, “Kids these days!  They’re just showing off.  Honestly.  It means nothing…This has nothing to do with being from Utah.  I SWEAR!”

I let it pass--dissipate, if you will. I talked about how, in America, we open our presents on Christmas Day, not on Christmas Eve as they do in Norway. And about how our family has blended these two traditions, so our lucky kids get two days of (explicitly non-religious) present over-load. Then the guy next to me, whose wife is Russian Orthodox said, “That’s nothing! The orthodox calendar puts Christmas in January, and the Russians give presents on New Year’s Eve, so we go through it three times every year!”

Saved!  By the Russians.  How...unexpected.

Ultimately, I think EM's motives for dragging Christ into the Christmas party were very much the same as mine were lo those many years ago in unleashing adultery into the bishop's office.  She's experimenting with grown-up words and grown-up concepts, about which she has only a rudimentary understanding, in order to appear more grown-up than she actually is.  The other two were just following their big sister's lead, and parroting some lines they've heard at school. 

She wasn't so far off base.  She just hasn't learn to gauge tone or atmosphere yet.  There is a time and a place, dear heart.  Now, please to explain to the nice Bohemian artsy types that I'm really not a crazed Jesus freak.....

*pinnekjøtt (pee-nuh-chut): salted lamb, favorite Christmas Eve dish in this area
**lutefisk (loo-tuh-fisk): vile cod preserved in lye, favorite Christmas Eve dish in other, less civilized areas


Guitar said...

Yes I was there at the Bishops office, and I remember what you said. I nearly shit myself. You were (and still are) shocking by nature.

Queen LaTeacha said...

OMG, I'm laughing like the fat lady in the window at Lagoon!! How I wish I could've been there to see you "get yours." Knowing the place of religion in most Wegie households makes your story even funnier.

I'll bet everyone spoke to you in hushed tones after that, didn't they? "Jesus", "Jesus is borned", and "Jesus is king" are all really nice Christmas sentiments, just a bit surprising coming from your kids. There is no separation of church and state in Norway, right?

I'm still laughing!

Amy said...

OMG, I laughed so hard, I peed a little. You have such a way of telling stories that I feel like I'm sitting right there in the room.

Trace said...

Oh, I'm smiling and laughing and smiling some more. I loved every single word of this post... of course, especially those spoken from the mouths of your sweet babes. :)

Please give them kisses and hugs from Auntie Tracy, Uncle Chad and Cousin Zoe on Christmas!