My first memory of church is not Christmas, but cake.
A mate at school had a very religious upbringing. Every Sunday, he’d be dragged to the house of worship.
His picture of church was one where every table had a bowl of chips. Chocolates at every turn. And more cake than a skinny school kid could dream of.
It was with this glowing appraisal in mind that I ventured off for a morning with him. Mum was delighted. Dad shook his head, and said nothing.
When I arrived, it became clear that his feast of faith had been a cruel ploy. In fact, there was nothing to eat. Just a few hours of fire and brimstone from the pulpit. I had been conned. I didn’t hang around to ask if that was a sin.
Dad was fixing the car when I got home. I told him my tale of woe, and he laughed. Mum shook her head, and said nothing.
Since then, my trips to Holy Houses have been few and far between. Mainly weddings and funerals. Of late, sadly, more of the latter.
Two years back, we went to a wonderful church in New York on Christmas Eve. Old and majestic, with the first dusting of winter snow.
It was midnight mass, and the place was packed. As seems to be the case in most churches, there were several loud singers in the congregation. When I say loud, I mean Aretha Franklin in robes. The girls thought it was hilarious.
It was a modern service. The priest was most impressive. He gave an inspired sermon, about the need to look after each other. On every level. And that it’s never too late. Simple messages. For such a complex time.
Like so many others at this time of year, I’ve been searching for answers. To questions big and small. A helping hand , to chart the path ahead.
Guidance comes from many directions. Much loved family members. Great mates and colleagues. In kitchens and down the phone line. At the front bar and in racetrack grandstands.
It’s this long-term quest for direction that prompted me to pay church another visit. A magnificent old building, next to The Teenager’s school.
I drive past it every day, and have often wondered what it’s like inside. It LOOKS like a place to soothe the soul. What better time than Christmas to find out.
I swapped my regular Sunday afternoon appointment with the old pub jazz band, for a session of a different kind. I know many of you just fell off various bar stools. And no, there wasn’t a lightning bolt when I walked through the door. Although I thought I heard the faintest clap of thunder.
It wasn’t a big crowd. In fact, for a pre-Christmas sermon, I was a little disappointed. The Big Apple had obviously spoiled me.
The man conducting proceedings was in shorts. There was music, led by an enthusiastic young bloke with long hair and a guitar. A few carols that I’d never heard of.
As time went on, I found myself having a closer look at that beautiful structure. Rich wooden beams, and stained glass windows.
It got me thinking. How many people had come here before me, looking for answers? Had they been helped, and given a clearer sense of what it’s really all about?
Those around me were happy. They were enjoying each others company, and the words of wisdom on offer. I was happy for them.
All the while, a baby in the front row was staring at me. He had blue eyes and a mass of blonde hair. With the most delightful giggle. I had seen that look somewhere before. But where?
Then it hit me. This little fellow was a mirror image of me.
It was one of mum’s favourite old photos. Me on a rug, with the most ridiculous baby smile. And here I was, looking at that picture once again.
Was it a message from above? Maybe the ultimate answer, to go back to where it all began?
I pondered this Christmas miracle in the making, and considered making a donation to the money bag doing the rounds. Even jumping to my feet. Right up until the man in shorts introduced the baby. His beautiful child. Named Lydia.
The smiling baby boy, was in fact a girl. Had been all along apparently. Everyone knew, but me.
It just shows, the answers we seek are never easy. Even when the question seems so simple.
We’ll get there, with love and support from those who matter. Someone way smarter than me said every worthwhile journey begins with one small step.
Merry Christmas Lydia. May your smile continue to light up those around you. And Merry Christmas to you and your family.