Outside St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral overlooking Sydney’s Hyde Park there is a sweeping forecourt of dulled granite pavers. Crossing it to reach a lunch date with friends, I pass by a Nativity being installed by orange-vested workers. The whole gang is there already. Virgin Mary, carpenter stand-in dad Joseph, the three wise men have journeyed from afar. A donkey and sheep overlook the makeshift crib – where a robust baby boy, wrapped in swaddling, nests. Jesus has come. But it’s only December 4.
Raised Catholic by a grandmother with an attention to detail, this premature birth annoys me. As children growing up in a maze of cul-de-sacs on Brisbane’s Southside my brother and I would argue about who got to put Jesus in the manger before bed on Christmas Eve. Nan’s nativity set had two mangers. One was empty, and would be swapped out for the baby-filled version each year on Christmas.
When I recount this little detail to some friends they obviously think it’s strange. “But what about the others? Are they all there before Jesus?” one asks. I have to think about it, because it’s been so long since I’ve partaken in the ritual. But then I remember how we used to move everyone closer to the stable over the weeks before Christmas.
“No, we would put up the stable and then we’d have everyone going there. Mary and Joseph, the angels, the wise men. At first it was just the animals.” And, I think now, remembering more detail, there were even two Mary’s – one round-bellied and one flat.
My friend, looking at the St Mary’s nativity – a towering group of well-nourished cream-skinned life sized figurines – thinks a bit more. “It’s funny though, I mean, none of them would have looked like that”.
No, Caucasians 2000 years ago in Bethlehem? Unlikely. But, religion is a ritual. It is a cultural pursuit as much as a faith-based one, and it reflects back on us what we want it to be (in the case of the Catholic Church, that’s a white, brown–haired square-jawed savior).
As a child I gave up on faith pretty early. But I lived for the drama that went with it.
It was probably about three weeks before the end of my first year of school when it was decided that year one would be leading the Christmas play at my tiny Catholic primary school. Leading the play meant you got to stage the key performance of any Catholic school’s Christmas celebration – the birth of Christ. Your class got to be the three wise men, the innkeepers, the angels, and of course, the carpenter Joseph and his virgin bride – Mary.
At first I thought I would like to be an angel. I’d won the class behaviour award in casting week and so, my year one teacher informed me, I could choose what part I would like to play. I still remember the conversation.
“Well, I think I’d like to be an angel please,” I said imagining floaty, coat hanger wings and sparkling sateen robes.
“Are you sure? The angels look very nice, but they don’t do very much.” My teacher clearly had my measure after the year I’d spent in her care.
“Oh.” I paused and thought about it. “Who does the most then?”
“I think you’d be a very good Mary. She has the most important job of all.” Then she moved in for the kill. “And she’s in every scene.”
“Alright. I’ll be Mary then.”
An average-looking kid with long mousey-brown hair and a loud voice, I relished the part. For a lot of the lapsed Catholics I know it’s the rich tapestry of cultural reinforcement they remember most fondly. The palm fronds and ash crosses, the theatrical staging, the beautiful music, the repetitive rituals, the midnight consumption of cardboardy wafers. An atheist from about the age of 12, I can still recite off all the callbacks and prayers. I instinctively genuflect and observe the rules when attending a wedding or funeral.
But I was the kid in the class who came up with silent games to play in the pews while suffering through the monotonous drone of our parish priest’s over-long homily. I would brief the others on them as we lined up for monthly service. I once snuck into the church atop our school’s assembly room at lunch because our teacher had told us the altar contained a sacred relic from a saint. I had to hide – giggling quietly with my best friend – behind the front pews when the priest emerged unexpectedly from the confession box, and headed towards the altar. I never did get to see that relic.
In year four, when it was our classes’ turn to take the lead in the nativity again, I won the role a second time. This time I got it through an audition process. There was a solo to sing and the very best singers in our class were already playing leads in the school musical, so in the spirit of fairness they weren’t eligible for the role of Mary. I snapped it up, turning down an opportunity to take a last minute opening as a lead in the musical because, well, I had a girlish crush on the boy they’d cast as Joseph.
Wearing a plain, blue cotton smock and a thin, white, scalloped-edged headscarf I clutched a plastic baby swaddled in cheesecloth and held the clammy hand of my curly-haired crush. In the thin wavering soprano of a nine-year-old I sang a song I can’t for the life of me remember now. The microphone was almost as big as my head.
In year seven it was our turn again.
“I am doing the roles for the nativity this morning,” our teacher said off-hand one day in November. “I’ve put you all down for things. I’ll read the list out now, and you can talk to me about it at the end.”
I wasn’t really paying that much attention.
“Mary – Sarah C,” he said. “Jos-”
“No way. She’s ALWAYS Mary. That’s not fair,” interjected one of the other girls in my class.
There was an awkward silence in the room. My best friend caught my eye and silently mimicked the other girl. It was true. I was always Mary – the two times our class got to pick, I’d won it. This time I’d just been handed it, and I didn’t really care that much, what with my newfound Atheism. But a role’s a role – right?
“How can I always be Mary when I’ve only been Mary twice and we’ve been here seven years?” I remember I said. Gosh, I was an insufferable know-it-all.
“You are. When it’s our turn you always get it.”
“We’ll come back to it at the end.” Our teacher said, and read out the other roles.
In the end, she won the argument. My little Catholic primary school was big on sharing and fairness. Despite my bold argument that I was the candidate with the most experience for the job (oh, the audacity), I lost out.
I think I played an angel. She had floaty wings made from coat hangers and a sparkling sateen smock.