It’s a strange thing, as an atheist, to be in on the early days of a religion. It’s even more strange when that religion is started by other atheists and when it grows mostly through the actions of yet more nonbelievers. Then, one day, you find yourself building a shrine.
My friend Kelly McCullough wrote an essay at Uncanny Magazine talking about how he’s created religions both on purpose–as a writer–and more or less accidentally–as someone who likes to throw a party and has weird friends.
Chris—still foolishly possessed of the idea that if it was in the fridge, it had probably at one time been food—was deeply disturbed by this discovery. But after a while, he worked up his nerve, prodded the alien life form with a fork, and discovered it was harmless. However, this experience made him very cautious when he approached the rest of the contents of the fridge, which turned out to consist of one never–opened jar of red currant jelly which had expired some two years before his arrival.
When I finally returned from my wanderjar, Chris naturally enough wanted to share the tale of his adventures in my apartment, and to question me about the candle (now tucked away in a box in a cabinet—but still unidentified) and the jelly. After some careful inspection of the items in question and dusting off of old memories, I was able to identify the candle. But the jelly defied my powers of memory.
Or, at least, that is one explanation. However, since I have never in my entire life eaten red currant jelly, nor to my knowledge has it ever been a staple in my family’s household, I have darker suspicions. I tend to believe that it condensed out of the mysterious cosmic stuff of missing hangers and lost socks, and that it happened some time between when I left the house on my trip and when Chris arrived a day later—and that it is possessed of inhuman and sinister motivations.
And so, I have never opened it or discarded it—for fear that someone else might open it. Instead, once a year—near the expiration date listed on the jar—we bring it out and throw a festival to appease it.
That time has come again.
Yeah, I’m one of those weird friends. No, I don’t believe a jar of expired jelly that spends the bulk of its year sitting in a fridge in a bag labeled, “Do not open or throw away”, is going to wreak havoc if we don’t bring worshipful offerings. I still tell people I’m going to “appease a jar of jelly” when I head out to the party. I still built the thing a shrine.
As I recall, the idea behind the shrine was “Look, if we’re going to do this, we ought to do it right.” A cloth on a counter is all well and good as a backdrop for an ordinary jelly, but if we were going to say we were getting together because we were scared, we ought to have proper trappings for the occasion. A jar of jelly on a fancy cloth just isn’t properly intimidating.
We still might not have done it if we hadn’t found a cheap wooden cabinet and candle stand of exactly the right size at the same time. If you’d like to imagine the jelly engineered the coincidence, it would be in keeping with how the rest of this has gone. We’d been looking for the cabinet for a while, though.
Then Ben, my husband, said, “It needs lighting.” Ben always says things need lighting, and he’s correct more often than he should be for that kind of shotgun approach. We went to a home improvement shop and discussed LEDs and color effects.
We took out the cabinet shelf and took measurements. While Ben cut holes for puck lights, I hemmed gold lamé and started beading. I painted the matte, brick-red cabinet a more dramatic color. He mounted the battery enclosure. We bought a glue gun.
Lest you forget, all this was for a jar of expired red currant jelly. But now it looks like this once a year.
It still isn’t intimidating, but it now gets at least close enough to engender a weird moment of cognitive dissonance. We invoke that same strange cognitive dissonance in many of the stories we tell about the jelly.
Jelly is supposed to be…well, jelled. Unless you disturb it to break up the pectin entanglements, or heat it to the point where it dissolves again, it should be pretty stable. This jelly isn’t. Some days it’s normal. Some days it’s more sloshy, like it’s ready to ooze its way to wherever it wants to go next.
Is that ominous? Actually, that might be perfectly normal behavior for pectin that’s more than three decades old. It might even be what you see if you closely examine the entirely prosaic jelly in your own fridge. We don’t know. We don’t ask. It’s more entertaining this way.
About a decade ago, our friend James called Kraft. If I have the details right, the idea was to find out how old the jelly was. We have an expiration date. We can look at jelly in the grocery store and find out what modern expiration periods are like. We don’t know what they were back then.
James wasn’t able to find this out from Kraft. He was polite and explained that he knew what he was asking was weird. They wanted to be helpful, but they couldn’t. The person he talked to said Kraft never made red currant jelly. He asked for a supervisor. Same answer. However high he ended up going, the answer was the same. Kraft never made jelly like this.
Did the jelly materialize out of nowhere? Did it adopt imperfect camouflage for this plane of being? Or, you know, are Kraft’s records that would go back that far locked in some file cabinet or lost entirely to history? We don’t know. Internet searches aren’t terribly helpful, though I now know that collectable vintage jelly is apparently a thing and Kraft made red plum jelly around that time.
We know none of us ate that flavor of Kraft jelly. While we also know we didn’t eat Kraft red plum jelly, that’s good enough for us. It is, after all, the story that we’re really interested in, as Kelly says.
Still, having made a shrine for a jar of jelly, I can’t help but notice that offerings have gotten bigger. They’re more abundant these days too. People pick up presents for the jelly in their travels they way they would for friends and children and save them until April rolls around. A party is a party and there are plenty of parties, but more people come to see the jelly. They travel from further away. They make more excuses if they can’t come.
It isn’t just the shrine, of course. It’s the stories. It’s the performances. It’s the tradition. It’s the pile of previous offerings. They all add weight.
I don’t think anyone believes. Not really. Not consciously. But it would surprise me if no one has felt a tiny twinge of superstitious dread over missing the party. It would surprise me if no one has worried just a bit at misplacing an offering. We’re all actors playing roles we’ve chosen to adopt because they amuse us, but sometimes belief follows action. Even when those beliefs are rightly and easily squashed, they’ve come to be.
You can make a good case that the Red Currant Jelly traditions are a religion without a belief. The party would go before that was allowed to happen. The whole thing, however, is a fascinating look into the ways that religious stories, trappings, and practices are selected and accrete.
Note: Uncanny Magazine, which published this essay and is the magazine to which I turn most frequently for stories for this feature, is holding its annual Kickstarter. They’ve hit their first funding goal, but in order to Uncanny to continue at its current scope, they have several stretch goals to hit. If you like the stories I share here or essays like this that explore the intersection of art and society, consider helping to fund their work. One of the backer rewards is a blog post from me on their site on a topic of your choosing.