As another holiday season comes to a close, I reflect on all the things one reflects on at Christmastime: The “true” meaning of Christmas. Helping those less fortunate. Gathering with loved ones. Baking cookies. My hypocrisy. Ok, maybe not everyone reflects on their own hypocrisy, but this is something I think about often. Year in and year out, I feel the guilt of my Catholic upbringing creep in as I bake, gift, give and celebrate a holiday I don’t believe in.
A recovering Catholic, I denounced the religion I was born into a long time ago. Some may find it odd that I still celebrate Christmas. Even odder, I have a Nativity scene that I set up every year. Hypocritical? Yes, maybe. Okay, definitely. But there’s more to it than that.
Growing up, I was forced to go to church, make communion, go to confession, etc. etc. Once I reached the age of reason though, and was old enough to think critically about what I was doing, I very easily decided that Catholicism was not for me. I dabbled in various Eastern philosophies over the years, but never found anything that really “fit” until recently. But that’s a story for another day. This blog is about me trying to reconcile the fact that even though I am a pagan, I still have a desire to celebrate “Christmas”.
Christmas is supposed to be about celebrating the birth of the Baby Jesus. I think. I mean, I’m pretty sure. I don’t know. Honestly, I stopped paying attention in CCD class around the age of 7 when I couldn't get acceptable answers to the perfectly rational questions I was asking. Regardless, Christmas is a religious holiday when we are supposed to honor God. Undoubtedly, modern day society has turned Christmas into a commercial shark-tank that pretty much blasphemes the true meaning of the holiday. Personally, neither of these appeals to me much. I have no desire to pick one day of the year to “honor God.” I try to live my life cherishing my idea of “God” every day. Life is full of miracles and surprises; why would I choose just one day of the year to celebrate that? And as for the commercial part…ugh. While I do enjoy giving to others (in fact, this is my favorite part of “Christmas,”) I am appalled at the commerciality of it all.
Christmas means remembering and cherishing the memories I have of being a kid during “the most magical time of the year.” Warm, fuzzy pajamas. A crackling fire. Snow covered lawns. Gramma’s meatballs. Cousins. Mom’s brownie pudding. Decorating the tree with its beautiful smell wafting through the house. Burl Ives singing Christmas songs. Snow forts. Rudolph. Heat Miser. The house smelling of roast turkey. Unpacking the Manger from its box and setting the figurines out for their month-long display. Not celebrating the birth of some guy named Jesus. Who I’m sure was a really cool dude, don’t get me wrong; it’s just not my thing.
I watch attentively, my eyes like saucers as my mother carefully takes the box marked “Manger” off the shelf in the basement that holds the Christmas decorations.
For whatever reason, my mother had labeled the box “Manger,” which, according to Wikipedia means "a feeder that is made of carved stone, wood or metal construction and is used to hold food for animals (as in a stable.)" I guess everyone else would call it “Nativity,” but for purposes of me and my story, it will remain “Manger.”
Each of the sixteen pieces is wrapped in tissue paper, each one a fragile treasure. I try to guess which one is being unwrapped as the tissue paper is slowly removed, one at a time.
It’s funny; I look at it now in a completely different way than I did then. The first thing that strikes me today is the Three Wise Men. One has really dark skin and the other two much lighter. And Mary and Joseph look totally white. Didn't this whole Jesus thing take place in like, I don’t know, a country on the other side of the world where people don’t look….like that? I mean, Jesus was black, right? Hasn't someone already had this argument? I don’t even know what that means. Is it good? Is it bad? I don’t know. I just don’t know. But when I was younger…
There is a little tiny manger in which has been placed a cotton ball to serve as The Savior’s bed.
Ok, I might have made the cotton ball part up. But a cotton ball would be the perfect bed for an inch and a half long Savior, no?
There are Mary and Joseph, both down on bended knees, admiring the new baby Jesus. I love the blue on Mary’s clothes and the purple on Joseph’s. They are so pretty! Next are the three wise men, dressed in red, yellow and blue. They have gifts for the Baby Jesus!
What the hell a baby is gonna do with Frankincense and Myrrh is beyond me…
The colors are so bright! A camel (my personal fave), an ox (a close second, he had springs for horns which are fun to “boing,”) a donkey, a Shepherd and his dog and five sheep. We set them out very carefully, building the scene. Only after everything is in place can we remove the tattered plastic Hollywood Bread bag that my mother has re-used to hold The Hay.
The Hay was the best part. (Well, besides the camel and the ox.) It had a kind of old, but not unpleasant smell that I can only describe as lightly earthy. The first whiff that escaped when the bag was first opened told you that it was undoubtedly Christmastime. I loved to take it out and hold it and smell it.
Very carefully, we place The Hay in between all the figurines. You have to kind of “sprinkle” it because it sticks together. I like to place The Hay right in front of the sheep’s mouths so it looks like they are eating it. You have to be very careful though because it is easy to drop The Hay and make a big mess!
I still have that Hay. It’s got to be almost 50 years old. I’m not kidding. I just turned 44 and my mother had it before I was born. It’s dwindled a bit, what with every year of setting up and taking down, you’re bound to lose a few strands here and there. I mean, it is HAY after all.
All sixteen pieces are now in place and ready for Christmas. The scene is set. Each one has their part.
This is what celebrating Christmas is, and always was about for me. I know it sounds weird, and maybe even blasphemous to some, but I never associated Christmas with anything religious. Do I respect the holiday and the people who do? Yes, of course. But for me, that’s not what Christmas is. It seems I have a different meaning of Christmas than everyone else. But I’m okay with that. Just like each of the sixteen pieces of the Nativity, I have my part. It doesn't matter how others see me or if their opinion of me is true; I celebrate the way I want and I’m okay with that too. What I’m not okay with is giving up a holiday that I love and want to celebrate just because I don’t agree with what it is “supposed” to stand for. As long as I am celebrating in a way that doesn't hurt anyone else, what’s the big deal, right?
And so I will continue to set up my Manger at Christmastime. I mean no disrespect. I take good care of my Manger. I wrap all sixteen pieces carefully in tissue paper and pack them away in a big old shoe-box. The Hollywood Bread bag has since met its demise, but I have a new self-sealing plastic bag that safely stores The Hay. And it gets packed away in the huge plastic bin with all the Christmas decorations, safe and sound.
And waits for next year.