Understanding people's religious beliefs on Long Island is no mean feat. It's taken me four years to work out which of the people I know is religious, who is only nominally Catholic, Jewish or anything else, and who goes to what church, if any. Despite being told before I came to America that all Americans were religious, round here it isn't exactly true. We live in a very diverse area, and people don't talk openly about religion - for example, I've never been asked which church I attend - and sometimes what purports to be a religious occasion is purely just social.
It's not just me - it is incredibly confusing. I know, for instance, Jewish people who send their kids to Catholic preschools and Catholics who send their kids to Jewish preschools, just because they happen to like the school. Lots of people belong to the local Jewish Community Center (JCC), but they aren't necessarily Jewish - they go because it has a good swimming pool. And there are some couples who are two different religions, but cherry pick the best bits of each for their kids - so celebrate both Christmas and Hannukah, for example.
One thing I only became aware of this year was the social importance of the First Communion. Littleboy 1 is turning eight, so this year his Catholic friends are all having their First Communion parties. Last weekend, we were invited to one for his best friend; the invitation mentioned a church service followed by a party at their house.
Not being at all religious, let alone Catholic, I had to ask the advice of friends as to what to wear, and whether to take any kind of a present. "Go smart," I was told. As for a gift: "Ooh, it must be something religious - a cross or prayer book," said some people, while others said: "Cash or a cheque - this is Long Island, remember". I asked whether a gift voucher to our local toy/book store was acceptable and was told "not really". So, instead, I went to the shop in question to look for a card and saw various presents laid out particularly for First Communions and Confirmations. I chose an illustrated child's prayerbook.
The day before the occasion, I mentioned to the mother of the friend (who is a friend of mine) that we would see her in the church. "Oh, you don't need to come to the church!" she said, surprised. "Just come to the house afterwards!"
Nevertheless, I felt Littleboy 1 should support his friend (and having never been to a Catholic First Communion, I admit I was curious). So, he and I went, he in the only smart outfit he possesses and me in a skirt and boots. And it was interesting, from a fashion point of view as well as from a religious one (although the service did not seem very different from an Anglican one in many ways). The little boys wore suits, the little girls white satin dresses and veils, like brides. Meanwhile, guests dressed as if for an English wedding, in suits, heels and glamorous summer dresses. Afterwards, there were tonnes of photos in the churchyard, which made the occasion seem even more like a wedding.
Having taken Littleboy 1 home to change out of his finery, we all went to the house for the after-party. These friends are renowned for their great parties and this was no different: it went on all day, with lots of food and plenty to drink. In the evening, they lit a fire outside and we sat there in the cool spring evening chatting into the night, while the kids ran rampant around the garden playing ball games.
Just before we left, Littleboy 1's friend decided to unwrap his presents. "Oh, how lovely, you bought a religious one!" his mum exclaimed, as he looked through the prayerbook. Yes, alone among the Skylanders, Mario toys and the rest.
Somehow, I never seem to get it quite right; the religious element of the day was clearly not really the point. Still, it was a great excuse for a party.....