The first mistake was drinking beforehand. I think I had something like three glasses of wine and a hot apple cider mixed with whiskey. I'm pretty sure that someone could make a strong theological argument against drinking before church, but I also bet that someone else could argue that it's just practice for communion.
The second mistake was watching about a half hour of Mystery Science Theater 3000's take on Santa Claus, in which Santa battles Satan in an effort to capture the hearts and minds of children. This got me in a pretty giggly mood, which I guess shouldn't have been surprising. Combine MST3K with alcohol and you've got a recipe for hilarity more potent than watching Pronunciation Book on laughing gas.
It's a Christmas Eve tradition for my family to go to church. A weird part of the tradition is that the church changes from year to year. One Christmas Eve, we'll go to my mom's Lutheran church; the next year, per my dad's urging, we'll take a trip to the Catholic Church. My dad can be weirdly adamant about going to the Catholic church in spite of the fact that it's the only time of year that he steps foot in mass. Regardless of his long-distance relationship with Catholicism, he still has a solid grasp on all the trimmings that make me feel like an outsider at mass. You know: the chants, the dour call-and-responses. And don't forget the sign of the cross – or, as I prefer to call it, the Catholic Handjive.
There's a weird unintended consequence of this compromise. If we go to the Lutheran church, my dad feels a little like an outsider. And if we go to the Catholic church, everyone but my dad feels like an outsider. It's not a perfect system, but it's the way things have worked for the past few years.
Last year was an exception. During that one, we all felt like outsiders. See, we spent a good chunk of break in Hawaii. Per my dad's request, we went to a Catholic mass. Except this was a Hawaiian Catholic mass. What wasn't sung in Latin was sung in the native Hawaiian tongue. The family spent the whole evening glancing at one another, with expressions somewhere in between wow-this-is-neat and what-the-hell-is-going-on.
Thankfully, the mass wasn't completely incomprehensible to us. The sermon was delivered in English – albeit heavily accented English, since the priest was from India. The highlight had to be when he wondered aloud if poverty, violence and sin was "somehow a part of God's great dickery." It took me a few seconds after a few double takes to realize that I'd misunderstood his accent; that he was actually talking about God's great decree.
But apparently we hadn't had enough slight self-perpetuated religious alienation. Just a few days ago, we decided to attend a Methodist church that a few family friends frequented. The decision didn't seem terribly momentous. Now that I think about it, I don't really remember when this decision was made. (I blame the alcohol.) It wasn't until we stepped into the building that I realized that the evening might be a little stranger than Christmases past.
The initial welcoming wasn't that out of the ordinary. A smiling family stood at the entrance, shaking everyone's hand and greeting us with a hearty "Merry Christmas!" We ran into a few familiar faces: my piano teacher, my sister's friend, his family. And then the service started.
The first few minutes were pretty smooth. The Bible verses and Christmas carols were all familiar. A little script for the call-and-response moments were helpfully printed on church bulletins. (Take note, Catholic church.) But then the two women came up to the front of the church.
They were probably in their late fifties. Both wore black wire-framed glasses. One wore a sweater. The other wore a button-up shirt. Both wore dress pants. They both seemed happy, confident. Each glance at one another was followed by a smile. I wasn't sure if they were sisters, best friends, or lovers.
The pastor stepped aside. "And now Mary and Joan are going to sing a song for us."
Mary, holding a mic, glanced at the sound guy in the back of the room. The speakers started playing orchestral strings and handbells that just barely sounded synthesized, like someone had recorded the thing on their home computer and had taken great pains to disguise that. Joan stood there, her eyes closed, swaying back and forth a bit.
And then Mary started to sing. She had a nice voice. It was a little lower than you might expect it to be, but there was something pleasant about it – I mean, in a mellow kind of way. And then Sue started to sign.
Not "sing." Sign. She started gesticulating like crazy, doing this exorbitant, totally over-the-top sign language. She was really into it, closing her eyes, mouthing along to the words. She rolled her eyes into the back of her head in the throes of religious ecstasy borderlining on sexual pleasure. Perhaps it was a bit of both; maybe God decided at that very moment that the world needed a second virgin birth.
And then Mary – the one singing – would pause at odd intervals throughout the song. And she'd break into sprechgesang – you know, when people start rhythmically speaking in this limbo somewhere between rapping and just talking.
It was like listening to a sleazy lounge singer do Christmas standards.
"Oh…" she'd sing.
"Holy night." she'd speak.
"The stars are…"
I think it only took seconds into the song – seconds – for me to start smirking. I glanced over at my sister. She was smirking too.
And then I glanced at my mom.
She was not smirking.
"Be respectful," she said.
I tried. I tried to recall advice that I'd learned from comedians and improv teachers about how to stop yourself from laughing. I bit the tip of my tongue. The inside of my lip. I tried to intimidate myself. I imagined that I was in a concentration camp, facing an angry Nazi guard. "I vill shoot if you show me ze slightest ounce of disrespect!" he shouted at me.
None of it worked. The Nazi in my head was furious; my mother followed suit. And so I just had to suffer through it, trying to disguise my smirks as smiles of approval and joy, hiding occasional chirpy giggles as sneezes or coughs.
The song finally ended. The women left; the audience clapped. (I still wonder if anyone in that audience actually needed Joan's sign language services.) I glanced again at my mom, who was giving me her glare of disapproval that I'd come to know so well throughout childhood.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I really am. But it's like an SNL sketch or something." She shook her head, but I could have sworn that I saw an ounce of a smile there.
The pastor reclaimed the stage. We sang a couple more songs, listened to a few more Bible verses.
And then another singer took the stage. It was a tiny white man with huge glasses, balding, wearing tight, above-the-waist khaki pants.
A nearby pianist began to play. And the man started singing this obscure Christmas song. I think it was originally an African American folk song. I only say this because the man was singing like he was cast in a production in Porgy and Bess. Every "Lord" was "Lawd", every "the" was "de." I'm pretty sure that, at one point, "children" was replaced with "chillen".
I didn't laugh at that man. I'd had enough anxious, uncomfortable amusement for one night. I nodded, which gave way to nodding off.
Then I glanced over at my mom. And there she was, clearly smirking. At one point she covered her mouth, maybe coughing, maybe stifling a laugh. I felt the crinkles of a smile at the edge of my lips, but I stopped myself. I stayed silent until after the service.
at 6:52 PM