Irish society appears to be divesting itself of its Christian heritage

Christ was erased from the seasonal lexicon last Christmas

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On Christmas Eve 2014, in the company of a dear friend, I attended the carol service at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. This has become a long-standing ritual for both of us, and while she is a member of the Church of Ireland, I am not. Beforehand, I watched the congregation gathering. They came, all ye faithful. Also ye unfaithful.

Everybody was welcome to join in the sanctification of this holy season. Some did so with practised familiarity, while others half-heartedly confronted the surroundings and the occasion with, as poet Philip Larkin phrases it, “awkward reverence”.

The atmosphere, already heady with the promise of hot port to be sipped afterwards, was heavy with nostalgia. While our bottoms were firmly planted on hard wooden seats, our minds roamed backwards, not to the genesis of Christianity, but to different spaces and times in our own lives, when we stood hand-in-hand with parents, or shoulder-to-shoulder with schoolmates, our voices raised in song as on this day.

Most of us sang. Singing – uniting together in music, taking in air in quiet synchronicity and breathing it out again, lengthy and uproarious – this is truly one of the most meaningful experiences of shared religious expression.

Nearby, a lady articulated surprise at being haunted by her past. Odd exclamations escaped her until the singing started. Her voice faltered out barely remembered tunes in an uncertain soprano. As events proceeded, recessive memories of beautiful, ancient harmonies percolated and she began essaying them, a lone counterpoint to the familiar melodies.

By the end of the service, she had undergone a transformation. Her voice had swelled in an inverse relationship to her inhibitions. The high note she went for as part of her unrehearsed solo descant, soared loud and clear above the massed congregation and choir, up to the magnificent vaulted ceiling.

She reached it with chandelier-shattering certainty and held it there; it was the vocal equivalent of her ripping off her clothes and dashing down the venerable aisle screaming “Take me, take me” to all who would listen.

Having been raised in Ireland within a tiny religious minority, I have managed to negotiate the precarious balance between respecting and internalising (in part) the mainstream belief system around me, while maintaining my own religious andcultural traditions.

Yet often I have been made to feel that in rejecting the teachings of Christ, I (and those like me) am an outsider in Ireland, a participant-observer who sees and feels yet is not fully absorbed into Irish culture and society – a bewildering situation for a native-born, fully paid-up Irish citizen.

This Christmas, I was more confused than ever. Irish society appears to be divesting itself of its Christian heritage. Christ was erased from the seasonal lexicon. Television presenters exhorted us to enjoy ‘Happy Holidays’.

In schools, in shops,on streets, Christmas carols were replaced with banal winter-themed hits. Religious iconography was supplanted by images of robins and reindeers.

Christian worship at this most defining moment in the Christian calendar was driven underground (even if “underground” in this context is represented by the Gothic splendour of St Patrick’s Cathedral).

Most mystifying about this process of delegitimising Christianity is that in Ireland there exists strident intolerance towards religious (including Christian) minorities.

Empty words are preached regarding rights to religious diversity and freedom, yet racism, bigotry and xenophobia in their various forms are increasingly acceptable currency among all strata of Irish society.

Why, then, are references to Christ being excised from the Christmas-tide discourse? Does it reflect a mindfulness of excluding those from unlike cultural or religious backgrounds?

This would indeed be a strange paradox; to try and appease that which is reviled, by the deliberate suppression of self.

The gradual disentangling of Church and State is causing unease within Irishsociety. However, subjugating indigenous traditions does not make otherness go away. It simply engenders resentment, an emotion which Irish society has come to know especially well over the centuries.

What we all need in today’s Ireland is greater cultural sensitivity towards each other, so that religion should never be an excuse to compromise a sense of national identity in any Irish person.

Dr Melanie Brown is a Local Centre Examiner at the Royal Irish Academy of Music,and represents Dublin’s Orthodox Jewish community in the Dublin City Interfaith Forum.

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