Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

Away in a Manger

Friday, 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.

Holiday Spirit(s)

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

I was the last child of three. And with each Christmas, my older siblings’ interests in the holiday waned. My mother, too, seemed to care a little less about all the preparations each year. So, in the void they left behind, I saw an opportunity. My authority — and autonomy — over decorating the house grew as they relinquished theirs.

Night comes early in late December. And, as a kid, that suited me just fine.

When night came, I’d plug in the plastic candles that sat on the windowsills of our apartment, turn off the rest of the lights in the living room and plug in the tree. Then I’d sit quietly in the shadows — or space permitting, lie directly under the tree — and stare at the play of the twinkle lights on the glass ornaments and slivered plastic icicles … well, until someone demanded to know why the hell all the lights were off and I was sitting like an idiot in the dark. But even then, my mother would have to pause for a moment before telling me to turn on a lamp. And she’d take that opportunity to comment:

“I know I say this every year, but that’s the most beautiful tree we’ve ever had.”

Through the magic of plastic extrusion technology, it was, in fact, the very same tree we’d had for several years running. But that didn’t matter. It was beautiful. And the light it shed was the perfect counterpoint to the early darkness. In the warmth of its glow I could release my fantasies into the room around me. But my fascination with the tree wasn’t limited to the hours after sunset.

I was a solitary kid and, outside of school, I spent most of my time by myself. I filled my afternoons and evenings with the stories I’d spin around my toys or the characters I discovered in comic books and on television. It sounds a bit lonely, but I found it very satisfying. And something about our Christmas decorations stoked the fires of my vocation.

As I’d unpack those familiar items each year, it was like greeting old friends. Sure, most of the ornaments were just silvered glass balls tarted up with various kinds of tinsel or paint. But many — usually the cheapest ones — took more specific forms, like those of misshapen fabric elves or animals. And there were the dozens of other tchotchkes my mother had purchased over the years, too: santa and snowman window shade pulls; the ceramic elf candle holders which contorted their little holly-covered bodies to spell out the word “noel.” One of my favorites was an old wooden sleigh that she’d pack with a Santa-shaped candle and as many miniature candy canes as would fit. Then she’d tie it to a stuffed reindeer with a yard of red curling ribbon and place it proudly by the front door.

These weren’t just decorations. They were toys charged with that special energy that I attached to all things Christmas. And they slid seamlessly into the stories I’d spin over the few hours between the time I got home from school and the time my mother got home from work.

G.I. Joe could scale the tree to rescue the elf ornaments hanging helplessly by the points on their hats. My plastic Creature from the Black Lagoon could join Santa in that sleigh as it flew from the living room, into my bedroom, and back.

In my mind, this Christmas time of year changed the stories of everyone it touched. It engulfed us all in one big narrative of goodwill and twinkle lights. So it made perfect sense that the Creature would accompany Santa, that G.I. Joe would befriend those weird little elf ornaments, and that we’d all sing along with Perry Como as his voice blasted from our portable stereo. We all embodied that Holiday Spirit as it infected each one of us and we passed it along to those we touched. That was what made Christmas so different from the rest of year; it’s what made it so painfully wonderful.


In a fit of nostalgia for those flying sleigh rides around the apartment, I decided to recreate some of those Holiday Spirits. And now you get the chance to experience them for yourself. Just click on the big, shiny button below to get started.