Attend a Dutch birthday party and you are expected, on arrival, to congratulate not only the person celebrating the birthday but also the spouse, parents, siblings, in-laws and anyone else with even the remotest relationship to the celebrant.
My immigrant cousins and I were selfconscious about being congratulated on our parents' birthdays, finding it a bit quirky to receive honour for something we really had nothing to do with. Not that this couldn't be masked by a self-deprecating quip and a quick transition to the occasion of fun and camaraderie that the birthday celebration afforded.
These reminiscences crossed my mind as I returned from a recent meeting of Calgarians who had been invited to brainstorm with the Governor General in preparation for Canada's sesquicentennial celebration in 2017. On the screen had been a website clock counting down the hours for an event more than five years and four months away. It had taken less than half that time from when I met my wife for us to marry. What was it about this occasion that required more than twice the amount of time we had taken to prepare for our marriage?
The discussion regarding Canada's 150th reminded me that in many ways, the occasion of a celebration instigates a reflection on the past and resolve for the future that can be helpful. Days, months and years follow each other like indistinct waves in the sea of time. Using natural markers to help us measure and to prompt a conversation that may inform and inspire seems not only useful but is in fact an opportunity not to be neglected.
To be sure, part of the opportunity is the excuse to have a national party. It's not as extravagant as it sounds—many in the room fondly reminisced about their memories of the Centennial celebrations in 1967 and how for many years it was a reference point for their patriotism and pride. Given that changing my diapers was part of my parent's centennial celebration, it wasn't a conversation I could really participate in. Still, I recall that the Centennial legacies of Expo 67, Bobby Gimby's Centennial song, "Ca-na-da," and the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill were prominent symbols of patriotic pride impressed upon me during my youth.
But what is it that we celebrate? The brainstorm evoked themes of challenge. "The Canadian project is suffering," said one person. "Not everyone views the 150 years of Canada as worth celebrating," warned another, clearly making reference to the challenges in our relationship with Aboriginal peoples Others in the room were more optimistic but still wanted to focus on "bringing a gift" to the party rather than preparing for a triumphal basking in our virtues. Shaping The Globe and Mail headline for July 1, 2017, seemed to be at least an implicit incentive for others. Through the brainstorm, a laundry list of interesting suggestions emerged, ready for feasibility considerations. The conversation was instructive and reflective, characteristically Canadian in simultaneously being concerned about how the occasion might reflect on how others see us while modestly promoting ideas that emerged from a confidence in ourselves.
Still, there was a subtext to the conversation that reminded me of the angst I felt as a kid, mindful that the way our family celebrated birthdays wasn't exactly the way the neighbours did. I teetered between pride that we had our own traditions and self-consciousness that if a neighbour showed up, we would be seen as different. It wasn't just the congratulatory handshake custom nor the special pastries reserved for these occasions. It was the religious framing that took priority during our birthday celebrations. These were times when we spoke of Divine Providence, read special passages of Scripture, and prayed for God's continued blessing while asking for a new measure of grace. All was well when it was only our family around, but when unchurched neighbours joined us, I was sometimes preoccupied about what they might be thinking.
So how do Canadians hold a national birthday party? Seguing from immigrant family traditions to that of a pluralistic multicultural country isn't as big a stretch as it sounds. A quick bit of Google research tells those of us who weren't there something about how we celebrated our national birthday in 1967. On Parliament Hill, the Queen and Prince were escorted to the platform by eight clergymen, and a nationally televised celebration included an atmosphere of worship as well as celebration.
To cite Queen's University historian Marguerite Van Die's account in "The End of Christian Canada: Past Perspectives, Present Opportunities for Faith and Public Life": " 'A hundred years ago today,' read the distributed programs, 'our ancestors witnessed the birth of a new nation. Now a century later, some twenty million Canadians share the heritage of freedom and material prosperity for which, on this historic occasion, all will wish to join in thanksgiving to God.' In the half-hour, nationally-televised ceremony that followed, Canadians across the country began their Canada Day [sic] celebrations of the country's one hundredth birthday with prayer, Bible reading, and song: a call to worship from Psalm 33 and 95, read [by] a prominent member of the Montreal Jewish community, representing the Canadian Interfaith Conference; the singing of the hymn "O Lord My God" by the Centennial Choir and the audience; a confession of sin and a reading from 1 Peter 3 by Prime Minister Lester Pearson.
The ceremony was concluded with a communal litany as thousands of voices repeated the refrain, 'We re-dedicate ourselves, O Lord.' "
This is not to suggest that Canada was a homogeneous Christian country in which such collective expressions of worship would reflect the full story. In fact, later that year Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau described the spirit of the times to Parliament using a different frame.
"We are now living in a social climate in which people are beginning to realize, perhaps for the first time, that we are not entitled to impose the concepts which belong to a sacred society upon a civil or profane society. The concepts of the civil society in which we live are pluralistic, and I think this Parliament realizes it would be a mistake for us to try to legislate into the society concepts which belong to a theological or sacred order. These are very important concepts no doubt, but they should not by themselves be considered as the sole guide for government."
My guess is that as we think about our celebrations in 2017, neither of these captures the predominant thinking about where expressions of faith might fit in. Perhaps the most current barometer of the prevailing attitude might be illustrated by the public services that followed the events of 9/11. Again borrowing from Van Die:
"[Contrast] another gathering, held twenty-four years later, again on Parliament Hill, on September 14, three days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. An unprecedented crowd estimated at over 100,000 people had gathered. Prime Minister [Jean] ChrÃ©tien expressed the feelings of most Canadians when he conveyed, in the presence of the American ambassador, heartfelt support for the United States and its leaders. On this occasion, however, there was no reference to God, and the language and music were studiously neutral of any religious tones. Religious faiths were, indeed, represented in the front rows of the audience by clergy and officials from many Canadian religious communities. They were there at the explicit invitation of the Department of Canadian Heritage, but they sat in silence. Everyone observed a moment of silence for the dead, yet no one was called upon to say a public prayer. The country's faiths had become silent symbols, but of what remained unclear."
At the planning meeting to which I had been invited, I made an intervention seeking to highlight the importance of including recognition of the role that faith and faith communities had played in the history of our land.