“Omari, you promised that this year you would explain the human Christmas to me.”
“So I did, Naji. Come, then; let’s take a little walk.”
Omari stretched, curving his back high, and ended up on all four paws. He led the other cat out of the warm shed and down the alley.
“Tell me, young Naji, about Egypt.”
“In Egypt we were worshipped as gods,” Naji replied brightly, “because we were the ones who killed both the rodents that infested the granaries and the fearsome cobras. This knowledge is part of every cat and is every cat’s birthright.”
“Very good,” the older cat said. “But later?”
“Later, the worship of cats was forbidden; humans accused us of being evil and we were tortured, drowned, hanged, burned and scorned. This knowledge is part of every cat and is every cat’s warning. It is why we are often aloof and wary of humans.”
“Correct. Many humans now either tolerate us for our uses or pamper us fondly, but we are no longer worshipped. We are fallen gods, Naji.”
“Omari, does our history have anything to do with Christmas?”
“Indeed it does. We are here.”
Omari led his pupil around to the front and up the steps of the church. Despite the winter chill, the front door was slightly ajar, not having been properly closed. The cats squeezed into the narthex and Omari sat down.
“Now what, Omari?”
“We wait. But not quietly.” Omari began to meow, a matter-of-fact sound announcing his presence. Naji joined in during the silences.
Scant moments later, the door to the nave opened and a man all in black stood there.
“Ah! I haven’t seen you for a couple of weeks,” he said to Omari. “And I see you have a friend with you.” The priest knelt and scratched Omari’s ears. Omari tipped his head and purred. When the man reached toward Naji, the younger cat bore it stoically and purred a little in imitation of his teacher.
Omari went to the inner door and meowed again.
“Why do you want to go in there?” the priest asked. “The Blessing of the Animals for St. Francis’s feast day was back in October. You missed it.”
Omari locked eyes with the priest and meowed once more. It was insistent but not demanding, asking but not pleading.
“Well, no one is here right now,” the priest said, “and my head is as soft as my heart.” He opened the door and Omari led Naji down the aisle toward the altar.
The priest followed and watched in amazement as the cats stopped before the Nativity. Omari sat and looked down into the manger, gazing upon the figure of the baby. Naji followed suit, although he began to turn around to look for the priest.
“Never mind him,” Omari said quietly. “He’s busy coming to the wrong conclusions. Here is Christmas.”
Naji studied the pieces of the crèche. “All of this? What does it mean?”
“The setting is a barn. The woman gave birth to the child lying in the hay trough. These others worshipped him.”
“The baby was a god?”
“The baby grew and became a man,” Omari continued. “He was a teacher and a prophet. He worked miracles. He was proclaimed the son of one of the human gods. And then …” Omari tipped his head upward to view the large crucifix above the altar.
Naji’s eyes went wide. “He was murdered!”
“As mercilessly and as painfully as ever a cat was,” Omari confirmed.
“But … isn’t this place dedicated to his worship?”
“Yes. It was said that the man returned to life and went to his father god in Heaven, a place apart from this world. And each year, his birth is celebrated and the humans give gifts in memory of the gift of this one, called the Savior and the Prince of Peace. But you see the human world every day, Naji. Do they act as though they have been saved from anything? Do they seem at peace?”
“He is kept for his uses and is even pampered in these buildings. He is not a fallen god as we cats are. But this place has now heard our voices though it has never heard his.”
Naji stared down at the crèche again. He reached out with his right paw and rested it briefly on the babe in the manger. I understand, he silently told the figure. If you wish to live, don’t let anyone worship you. This is why cats are often aloof, and it is why you remain quietly in your Heaven.
He removed his paw and slowly blinked at the figure in benediction.
Omari stood and Naji followed him away from the altar and toward the door.
They saw that the friendly priest’s eyes were filled with wonder; he had a beautiful story to tell his parishioners. Omari rubbed briefly against the man’s leg, a thank you for letting them in. The priest bent down and petted both cats again before opening the doors so they could depart.
The older cat regarded his student, who kept a thoughtful silence.
“There is one more thing to tell you about Christmas. The humans consider it a time to feast in honor of the birth of the child. I know where two fat mice can be found. Will you join me?”
“Thank you, Omari,” Naji said. “Perhaps the quiet god will join us in spirit.”
“It is believed by humans that he does. I see no reason why he would shun our table. Especially since we have so much in common.”