Christmas Architecture

the undeniable charisma of a church at Christmastime

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Don Ross

I don’t talk too much about religion. People like Garrison Keillor love to make pithy, knowing comments about the quirks and foibles of various Midwestern religious groups. Being a good Protestant, so and so did this and that. The Lutherans were upset because of whatever. Obviously, the Catholics were none to happy. The Presbyterians? Forget about it. Insert soft chuckle from audience.

I’m actually pretty fuzzy on the quaintly humorous differences between the region’s predominant religious sects, so I try to avoid discussing them unless I feel curious.

I’m also just pretty fuzzy. In general. It’s part of my charm.

However – I do know a thing or two about Sconnie Catholics. I was raised a Catholic and attended Catholic grade school, middle school, and high school right here in Eau Claire. I stopped “being Catholic” years ago, but this has way more to do with my personal preferences than my schooling, which as far as I can tell was just fantastic. Top-notch stuff. But the Catholic Church just isn’t for me.

Unless you’re talking about Christmastime. And since I’ve mentioned Christmas, please enjoy my annual Yuletide disclaimer:

If you do not celebrate or care about the holiday commonly known as “Christmas,” just pretend I’m offering you an extremely well-researched and articulate observation on the mind of a Catholic-raised Midwesterner, and please do not assume that I assume you celebrate Christmas. I do not assume so. But I will go ahead an assume that an intelligent, attractive person such as yourself understands the unique place “Christmas” has forged for itself in American society, the global economy, and the modern mind – for better or for worse.

Anyway, I grew up attending Catholic Christmas masses – yes, multiple masses – every year because church-goin’ was built into the my schools’ weekly activities like phy ed, music class, and squirting tempera paint at your friends’ faces in the art room. Between school and normal Sunday mass, I got more than my fill of genuflecting, incense, and holy water. It was too much for me. But like I said – not at Christmastime.

Basically, I loved the churches. Still do. I know Christmas means a lot more to most people than the building in which they gather to celebrate, but the energy found in a large Catholic church during the holidays is hard to deny – especially at night.

It’s in the architecture and the vaulted ceilings. The banners. The statues. The many, many flickering candles.

To achieve the full effect, it’s gotta be dark. You need some deep shadows laying just beyond the fingers of the candlelight – out in the corners and anterooms, on the other side of the stained glass windows – just to remind you of the unknown.

It’s freaking Hogwarts.

OK, not really, but there’s an atmosphere both grand and mysterious soaring through the arches and alcoves, building above the quiet reverence and the whispered prayers of people close to you, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel magical.

And the music. Doesn’t matter if there’s a full church choir, a “modern” band (with gasp! a drum kit), or just a pipe organ. Christmas music wafting through a church festooned with pine boughs and mangers is just ... Christmassy-er.

To achieve the full effect, it’s gotta be dark. You need some deep shadows laying just beyond the fingers of the candlelight – out in the corners and anterooms, on the other side of the stained glass windows – just to remind you of the unknown.

Whatever that “unknown” thing might be, whether it’s scientific or supernatural, a little hint at the awesome wonder towering just outside our peripheral vision is a fantastic thing to consider on a cold winter night as you sit on a polished hardwood bench beneath a lofty, ornate ceiling.

I like it. I like the ceremony and the processions and the repetition of phrases and the soft echo of an incantation bouncing off the marble floors and around the tapestries, searching for ... I don’t know what. Something.

I still go back most years. I’m not a Catholic, but at Christmastime I still go back to church – not as a fair-weather parishioner, but as someone who enjoys the holiday rituals for my own reasons. I find the door is always open, and the people are usually pretty happy for that one night.

And that is something I don’t mind talking about.

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