I spent the Christmas mornings of my childhood in Mass, somewhat resentfully, bursting to go back home and play with my new toys. At least my siblings and I were allowed to open our presents before we went. You could tell by the ants-in-their-pants behaviour of some children that they had to wait until after church to open theirs. Nowadays, I lure my own kids through the church doors with bribery, sneaking them clandestine chocolates and reading them stories while I assure them that it'll be finished soon.
Since I was a kid, I've been uneasy about the nativity story. Of course, in some ways it's quite lovely. Everyone likes precious new babies, after all. But I always felt that Mary was the true hero of the piece.
Mary is a powerful symbol in the church tradition, representing bravery, compassion, and the beauty of a mother's love for her child. She's also, in my mind at least, a figure representing particularly female kinds of suffering which we're still stuck with two millennia later.
For starters, Mary was fourteen and unwed at the time of Christ's conception, at a time when execution by stoning was the penalty for sex outside marriage. She got married to Joseph - whether she fancied him or not, probably. She was in labour while traveling on a donkey to the strange town of Bethlehem, where she was compelled to go to take part in a census. And there she gave birth, most likely in terror, in a dirty stable and surrounded by animals.
When I ponder the nativity story, I can't help but think of what it must be like to be a pregnant teenager, feeling scared and alone. I think about women in poor countries who give birth without medical help on hand, some of whom die. I can't help but think about women without homes over Christmas, living with their kids in Women's Refuges across the country.
Even though I've spent the last three decades giving the story of the nativity a perverse feminist reading, I can't help but like it. It's a story of suffering, but also a celebration - not just of the birth of a baby, but of the courage under incredible adversity of the woman who brought this baby into the world, and the women who continue to bear and raise children under sometimes terrible conditions. Kia kaha.