Erdington, a suburb in Birmingham, England, isn’t very Christmassy at Christmas. You’re more likely to be chased by a homeless man than meet Father Christmas, and there’s more rabid dogs than friendly reindeer. Also there’s no snow because it’s 10oC.
That’s why two Christmases ago I was mesmerised by a flyer that said:
CHRISTMAS CAROL SINGING
17th December, 7pm
Mince pies and friendly Christmas spirit!
Free entry? That’s my favourite kind of entry! I even managed to convince my brother, Adam, to come along. At first he rolled his eyes and said something like, “It’ll be some nutjob fundamentalist religious thing”. But he came anyway because he had nothing better to do.
It was starting to get dark. Two cheery girls stood guard at the school entrance, presumably to prevent any atheists from leaving.
“Is this the right place for the carol singing?” I asked stupidly.
“Yes, that’s right!” said one girl, beaming. “It’s up the stairs, through the second door on the left”.
We crept through the deserted school corridors feeling like trespassers. Eventually we found a hall filled with rows of chairs. On one side a band were preparing musical instruments, and on the other a guy was preparing his laptop for a presentation. We sat at the back, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. A friendly woman waved to us and we nervously shuffled in our seats.
The guy got up and welcomed everyone to the event, and then he started the presentation. It was about the virgin birth, or shepherds following a star, or some other such crap. So this was a Christian event after all! My brother sighed in exasperation. His arms were crossed and he loudly scoffed whenever the presenter said “We are all God’s children,” which was surprisingly often.
When the time came for us to stand and sing the carols, my brother defiantly remained seated.
“Get up!” I hissed.
Reluctantly he did stand. But instead of singing “Hark! The herald angels sing” half-heartedly like myself, he leaned over and whispered, “These idiots are crazy. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
“We can’t go, we only just got here,” I whispered back. “Besides, all these Christians will judge us if we leave.”
“I don’t give a shit,” he said.
He had a point, so we left. As we walked out I imagined all the Christians staring angrily at our doomed heathen souls.
My brother had to relieve himself after all the excitement. While he went to do his business, a Christian dad in the hallway started making surprisingly candid conversation with me about his life. He explained that his life can be tough sometimes, but God’s love is all you need, right? He seemed peaceful but also sad, like a neutered dog, or a weary parent resigned to a miserable life of looking after seven petulant kids. I felt sorry for him.
Then my brother came out the toilet, zipping up his fly as he left. “Let’s blow this fucking joint,” he said, grinning. I nodded solemnly in agreement. Then I looked over at Christian Dad to see if he’d overheard, but he just smiled at me weakly.
The girls at the entrance cornered us as we tried to leave.
“Leaving so soon?” asked one of the girls. I wondered if my brother and I were strong enough to knock her down if we had to. I decided we probably weren’t.
“Yes,” I admitted.
“Why?” she demanded.
“Well… we expected it to be less religious,” I admitted. “My brother and I are… how can I put this gently?” I lowered my voice to a mere whisper. “Atheists.” Then I sucked in my stomach in anticipation of being punched.
“Oh, I see,” she said, and laughed. “And you probably expected it to be a non-religious event or something like that?”
“Yes.” I laughed too, pleased she understood.
“Well then, may God have mercy on your souls.” She didn’t really say that, but she probably would have if my brother and I hadn’t already been running off into the distance, giggling like excited schoolgirls.