The True Meaning of Christmas?

After many years of visiting churches abroad, it occurred to me that I rarely do the same when travelling within Canada. I knew where that decision, albeit an unconscious one, stemmed from. Canada being such a young country, I tended to assume its churches wouldn’t have much to offer architecturally. Fortunately, I also realized how unfair that bias was, and made a point to start adding churches to my lists of things to see when exploring my own country.

That decision paid off quickly, as one of the first Canadian churches I visited was St. Boniface Cathedral in Winnipeg.

Architecturally speaking, which is where my primary interest in any church lies, St. Boniface is quite fascinating. The façade in the photo above is just that – a façade. See, St. Boniface has burned down a couple of times. The last time, the walls remained standing, and the new church was built behind them. So you have the classic old walls from the 1800s out front, with a building totally from the 1970s nestled in behind.

Then there’s the stained glass. Now, I’m not big on stained glass. I rarely do more than glance at it. But the glass at St. Boniface is spectacular. While it’s the same age as the cathedral, stylistically it feels more modern. And it’s absolutely fucking gorgeous.

Visiting St. Boniface is a bit like travelling through time – the further inward you go, the more modern it becomes. And had I stuck with my bias that Canadian churches have nothing to offer me because they’re too young, I would have missed out on that experience.

I would also have missed out on this.

Along the cathedral’s back wall is a series of prints detailing the history of Boniface, who was born Winfrith, a missionary in Germania who played a significant role in the foundation of the church in Germany. This particular part of the story details how Boniface chopped down a tree dedicated to Thor, which was sacred to the locals, and used the wood to build a chapel to St. Peter …

… thus recognizing, to some degree, the counsel given by Gregory the Great to the Anglo-Saxon missionaries: “Do not destroy the temples of the pagans, but empty them of idols and dedicate them to God.”

I fucking near choked. Most churches I visit try hard to minimize just how much of Christianity has pagan roots, but not St. Boniface. Nope! It proudly displays the douchebaggery of its namesake for all to see.

Not that I think it likely the church members see it the same way I do.

So it seemed somehow appropriate to write about St. Boniface Cathedral on Christmas, a day that highlights many, many ways in which Christianity has hijacked paganism. From stockings to carols to mistletoe to tree decorating to Santa himself, so many Christmas traditions have their roots in older religions and celebrations and gods. Hell, even the date itself, the day the baby Jesus was supposedly born, can be traced back to Mithraism, and if you’re going to get the birthdate of your lord and saviour wrong, don’t expect me to take any of the rest of it seriously.

Oh, there’s one more thing to add to that list of stolen traditions: bells. Pagans used bells to scare away evil spirits. Christians mostly use them to let people know services are about to begin. But Catholic churches, like St. Boniface, ring them three times a day – 6am, noon, and 6pm – to remind people to recite the Lord’s Prayer.

The day of my visit, I happened to arrive just before noon. At the time, I had no idea it was a Catholic church, or that that meant the bells would be ringing soon. It was a surprise when they started, and I raced outside to hear them in the open air as fast as my cumbersome winter clothes and camera gear bag would let me. I stood in the courtyard, wearing a smile big enough to split my face, and let the sound wash over me.

Of all the things Christianity stole … I like the bells the best.

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