Hosanna in Excelsis

Merrick, 19th December 2004ce

Although I've previously complained about how the Christian Christmas traditions aren't Christian at all, I often -and especially at Christmas - still find myself somewhat relieved that the God Squad do hold so doggedly to their antiquated ways.

I went to a primary school true to the letter and spirit of the 1944 Education Act, and each day started with an act of Christian worship. Not for them any weaselling out of it by using the Act's omission of specifying which God to worship. They knew the MPs of 1944 meant the One True God, so we sang those carols and hymns.

At other times of the day our headmaster Mr Astley would happily ignore the instructions of both the ten commandments and the sermon on the mount to regale us with his tales of killing Germans on the Second World War. He told them with such zeal that even I - an eight year old boy, with all the fizzing brutality that typically entails - was creeped out. Even I knew there was something wrong with the level of animated relish he reserved solely for that subject, and to this day a sentence stays with me verbatim; 'It was very exciting you see, because you had to kill them before they killed you'. Exciting.

Anyway, that's all kind of a tangent. And yet kind of not.

Every day we'd chant the Lord's Prayer.

'Who art in heaven' What? God does stuff with poster paints and gluing macaroni to silver paper?

'Hallowed be thy name' 'Hallowed'? What a mad name. And to think we used to ridicule Denzil.

'Thy will be done' Really? Can God get done? Who does the catching and telling off? Wouldn't that make them more important than God? In which case shouldn't we be worshipping them instead? As Mr Astley seems to be the most senior teller-off, maybe it's him.

'As we forgive those who trespass against us' I'm only 7, I don't have any land for people to trespass against.

And so it went on with hymns.

'The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want' I thought we were meant to want him.

'He makes me down to lie' I thought he was meant to make us feel up and tell the truth. If he makes us feel down and tell lies maybe he's not God, maybe it's the one with the goatee and horns.

'The quiet waters by' Pure poetry there - green pastures with quiet so present it's as if it's a fluid substance, watering by.

That was the just daily stuff. The Christian festivals brought it into even sharper relief. Or rather, into even blurrier obscurity.

Harvest Festival: Living in a dormitory suburb with absolutely nobody's family working the land, we brought in tinned foods, the same as we get all year round, grown in fuck knows which country or continent but quite possibly somewhere with summer at a different time of year or no 'summer' at all as we know it. How does rooting in the cupboard to get some tinned peaches in syrup symbolise God's annual bounty?

Easter: Whilst it's incongruous to be commemorating the death and resurrection of the Son of God by telling children that a giant bunny rabbit left chocolate eggs in the garden, the actual Jesus bit is no more comprehensible. He tortured and killed his only son for my sins. But I wasn't even born then! We're meant to think of God as a loving father, yet how would we feel if our biological father tortured and killed his own children? He's God, he sets the rules, he made up the whole price-to-pay idea and he could just as easily abolish it without anyone having to get nailed up. What a vicious bastard.

Please, if you're going to torture close members of your family to absolve something I've done - or have yet to do - talk to me about it first, OK? Call me an old softy but I might well change my mind about swearing or showing my ankles or whatever if it means someone isn't given one of the most gruesome slow deaths ever devised. Although once negotiations concern my drunkenness and fornication I might get a tad more intransigent.

In the intervening years I've briefly become a Christian, realised there is no God in the Abrahamic sense, pondered, discussed and debated religion at length and yet still, if I'm honest, I have to say at no point have I ever understood what 'Jesus died for your sins' actually means. So there was definitely no way I'd understand it at seven years old. As with the cloak of Latinate language that saved me from the meaning of hymn lyrics, by reducing selected advanced theological ideas to slogans they rendered the concepts incomprehensible, and once again I was safe.

Then the big one: Christmas.

It was as if they saved their biggest gibberish for their biggest festival, archaic language so impenetrable to contemporary children that it wasn't just tricky concepts or weird construction, but the very vocabulary that baffled us and had to be learned parrot-fashion.

Lo he abhors not the virgin's womb.

Gloria, hosanna in excelsis.

There we were singing these carols and it was just complete gibberish. Unlike those educated by Latin-fevered Catholics, we'd never heard most of these words in any other context. We'd no idea what they meant. Was it even English? Who cares, sing the smutty version as loud as you dare and see if Miss Lewis spots you.

In this polite C of E tradition there was no context for any of this. Those unfortunate enough to be born into the Catholic tradition had it explained in great detail what 'your sin' meant. I have friends who grew up with that and were scared shitless and still bear the psychological scars.

The C of E didn't want to scare anyone, so they'll take anyone, believe in anything and nothing. As long as you mouth the words, it's all fine. Making you actually think about what they mean could be divisive or, worse, impolite. And so it was that this veneer of Christianity, decontextualised and served up in arcane language, left us free to find our own paths, uncorrupted by the Christian establishment.

So, until the day when we find the much needed cure for monotheism, I'm relishing the Latinate gobbledegook's effectiveness as a protective layer between young minds and the poison of Christianity. It's Christmastime, but there's no need to be afraid.