Away in a Manger

December 24th, 2010

When I was a kid, our homemade crèche paled next to the other decorations that filled our home at Christmastime. Here was all this potential for real magic – a story supported and perpetuated by the Church and society – but it just hit a flat note.

As compensation for that disappointment, I offer here the chance to make your own nativity scene (and learn a bit about the Order of Things Christmas as you do). Just click that big, red button below to get started.

Play the Christmas Nativity Puzzle

Years before I was born, my father made our own model stable out of an old wooden liquor box. He was very handy that way. He’d collected odd bits of things left over from his job as a liquor salesman and recycled them; the boxes of Christmas stuff in our basement (or attic, depending on where we lived in any given year) always included bits of display materials from liquor store windows.

Our Blessed MotherHe covered the box with plaster to suggest the building style you’d see in 1950s depictions of the nativity, created interior railings for the stalls from small pieces of wood, and wired it with a socket to fit a white Christmas tree bulb. The plaster figurines must have come from some five-and-dime store. And I can’t imagine where he found the straw he laid on the floor of the box (and which I thought made it all seem pretty authentic), but I certainly appreciated the touch.

Each year we’d unpack the box and the plaster figurines which we’d wrapped the year before in pieces of holiday-themed corrugated cardboard (more leftovers from liquor stores where they formed the festive backgrounds behind a window display of whiskey and gin bottles).

I liked the whole doll-house sensibility mixed with the formality of following its time-honored storyline. We’d leave the manger empty because (of course) the Baby Jesus isn’t supposed to arrive until Christmas morning. And we had to squeeze the Three Wise Men alongside the liquor box because they can’t arrive for at least a week after Christmas.

It wasn’t as much fun as all the elves and twinkle lights, but it was fun to set up and plug in this more formal addition to our holiday trimmings. Besides, it seemed much more important to my father than all the other decorations combined.

Joseph, the Step-FatherThen one Christmas morning, my older sister had one of her fits of religious devotion and ruined everything. She insisted we could open no presents until we all knelt before the liquor box, placed the plaster babe in the space at which the proud parents had been gazing adoringly for some weeks already and said a “Hail, Mary.”

What a buzz kill. I mean, really? Before presents?

[NB: This was the same young lady who informed me at my tender age of five that the reason all girls wore veils to church was because to do otherwise would invite an Angel of the Lord to swoop down and rape them. I had no idea what that meant and, on later reflection, decided she probably didn't either. But it certainly made the already grim ordeal of a 60-minute mass even less appealing.]

Since that dour Christmas morning, my relationship to this part of the holiday narrative has been a bit strained; that is, until I decided to co-opt it and reshape it into something that conformed better to my own ideas of what Christmas should be.

Now you too can create your own Christmas Nativity, just by playing with this puzzle. As an added bonus, you’ll gain a better understanding of who gets to attend the blessed event and why (or why not). And best of all, each time you play, the game is a little different.

Four Shopping Days Left

December 20th, 2010

For reasons I don’t quite get myself, I’m drawn to images of Christmas from earlier decades. And, Christmas being such a commercial enterprise, I guess it makes sense that holiday-themed ads would grab my interest as well as any other image.

Maybe it’s because they capture some twisted idea of celebrating the holiday spirit in my mind, but most of the ads I’ve collected are all about booze and smoking. A couple just seemed lovely examples of mid-century graphic design.

And anything that tugs on heartstrings tuned to the frequency of wartime America gets me every time. I’m sure this will disappoint most of my friends but, despite the horror of warfare and killing (and the greedy interests that are eager to profit from the warfare and killing), there’s something about the second World War and its popular belief in a unity of purpose that still hints at people’s better natures. All that business about the families at home working hard to support the young men and women abroad — a mythology carefully crafted and disseminated through the popular culture of the period — always forms a lump in my throat.

So there you have it. Without anything more interesting to say about them, here is a small collection of holiday advertising images from decades past.