December is obviously one of the fun months in Kingston. Religious holidays sprout all over the map, as well as lights, candy canes and jolly old St. Nick. Retailers salivate, and mom, dad and all the kids find themselves with less time than usual to adhere to routine. They're readying themselves to celebrate religious holidays through the conduit of consumerism.
The good news is that the leaves are down and packaged (goodness, I recall those wonderful days of yore when we could burn them), or, if not, they're blown helterskelter by north winds to street south-sides all over town. The air is now pristine much of the time, as northern zephyrs, ushered by the jet stream, replace the smoggy days of summer and fall, gifts from places like Gary, Indiana, and harbingers, perhaps, of our finite future on Earth.
I'm walking with my yellow Lab, Forest, north on Clergy Street this fine morning, noting the aptly named thoroughfare with all of its gorgeous edifices of worship. I walk from Chalmers United Church, with St. James Anglican to the southwest, up toward what is arguably the most imposing Gothic cathedral this side of the Mississippi. Old St. Mary's, with its gargoyles and flying buttresses, is a thing of beauty, if not a joy forever.
Less-religious neighbours must wonder sometimes about the indiscriminate ringing of the church bells - some saint's birthday, perhaps, a holy day coming up, or perhaps the sexton deciding that no one should be napping at 6 p.m. The church fathers should know that their bells are indeed audible, even to the deaf, within several blocks.
Then it's on down Clergy, past Princess Street and St. Andrew's Presbyterian, with its large lawn and reputation as one of the premier sites where big deals of all sorts once were made in the shade, but that now has been supplanted by the coffee shop across the street, a site where people loiter and pass the time under the "No Loitering" sign. Then it's another block, a look eastward on Queen Street and a view of St. Paul's Anglican - all of this giving the impression that Kingston is a city of historic churches and faithful flocks.
To this list, alas, must be added several newer secular sites of worship whose sacrilegious detritus often adorns Clergy Street, especially in the morning hours. All of the aforementioned saints must make way for several newcomers. To judge by the castoffs, ironically often tossed onto church property, we must now welcome to the Clergy venue St. Ronald of McDonald, St. Pizza Pizza of Pisa, St. Timothy's of Horton, St. King of Burgher and St. Molson of the Beer Store.
These sites draw their sustenance from the men and women of Kingston, and their offspring, who judge their products frequently in spiritual terms. Who among us has not thought of Tim Hortons coffee as possessing qualities similar to the wine (or grape juice) one receives at mass. And driving through the golden arches of McDonald's feels, to the younger set especially, a lot like setting foot in church. The food is a whole lot better, too. And no one can quarrel with the observation that many local university students love the Beer Store more than their classrooms.
Scholars of North American popular culture have had much fun with the iconography of the Tim Hortons and McDonald's, among other fast-food solutions in our era of double-parent-working capitalism. Mom and Dad still go to church, according to the PEW people (a perfect acronym) who take surveys every three weeks or so to keep a finger on the religious pulse. But one must underline how far we have come in thinking of the profane as sacred. Driving beneath those golden arches, we imbibe the fries and the chocolate shakes, and then the burger itself, which, as a profane metaphor for the holy host, brings one closer to God than an hour spent listening to preachers preach and singing songs that have been around for centuries.
Fealty, devotion, habit, addiction - these items are part of our reading of fast food and drink and their hallowed outlets. Once hooked, twice bitten - into. The casual observer suspects, in fact, that s/he should be thrilled to see the remains of such consecrated meals, taken on the run, when we trip over them on our morning walks. All that paper and plastic, and those beer bottles - sere remains of original holy gruel and sacred mead - provide potential hors d'oeuvre for my pooch before his morning meal.
Taking the Clergy Street walk, one cannot help but reflect on the nexus between God and fast food. One also thinks of the greenhouse-gas emissions as drivers idle cars around the world waiting for a doughnut and a caffeine fix. And within a few minutes, the metaphor extends further when I stand in front of the ATM machine at the Bank of Montreal down on King Street.
"Bless me, Father," I begin, as I pass my plastic debit card into the waiting maw. "It has been two days since my last confession; here are my sins."
The litany of purchases - necessary and less so - follows. The line behind me, as at confessional, consists of people standing silently, eyes down, avoiding glances at one another, all thinking the same thing.
Then, suddenly, the grace comes forth in the form of a half-dozen twenties. Soon I may begin sinning again. Spending unwisely, on unnecessary things. Perhaps I'll turn to St. Tim of Horton when I walk along Clergy. No, I gave up coffee three years ago. It will have to be tea.
And I won't see the sacrilegious relics for at least a couple of months. That's one good thing about snow.
Retired Queen's University professor Geoff Smith removes sacrilegious relics from Clergy Street, returning them, where feasible, to their holy places of origin.This article appeared in the Kingston Whig-Standard 10 December 2007