Christmas was my favourite time of year as a young Catholic girl. It was really the only part of the year I actually liked attending mass. Our church would be decorated with swags of evergreens, filling the air with a smell of frankincense and forests. I sang in the church choir one year too, accompanied by a grand piano and violin for midnight mass. The intimate ritual of family Advent, with the candle lighting and quiet prayers, was always accompanied by some kind of dessert or treat made by my mother. The best part, in my secret pagan heart, was stories of the Nativity. All these wonderful and magickal characters captured my imagination: the Virgin, the miraculous Baby, an Angel, the Star, the traveling Magi… all waiting in anticipation. It was also very confusing as a naturally inquisitive person: where does Santa come in? How did Joseph feel about his new betrothed already being pregnant with child? And by an ANGEL, no less? Pretty heavy stuff, even for a 9 year old.
I would sit under the glowing Christmas tree, we always had a real one, and look deeply at this little crèche my mother had purchased before I was born. The little stable held within some animals and all the participants of the winter mystery, including a cute little baby Jesus in a manger; sometimes us girls would use our finger to ‘rock’ the infant God, soothe and console Him. It was rustic looking and realistic, not at all like some of these garish things made in China these days. There was a wind-up music box in the back which played “Silent Night”. Of all the Christmas things, all three of us girls loved this Nativity scene the most.
Over the years the holidays changed, as it always does when we grow older. The hardest part wasn’t letting Santa go (I was actually told VERY early on the truth of this devil), it was the complete discovery that my parents were fallible humans. They split up on Christmas Day, my youngest sister’s birthday too. Right there at the dinner table, my mother told my Dad she was done. Now, I knew this was coming…she had said something a few days earlier whilst folding laundry together. But she promised to wait until after the holidays. I wasn’t sad, in fact I fully supported my mother’s decision. Even at the ripe old age of 12 I knew my parents weren’t good for each other. Mom got drunk (they both rarely drink, still) and fell asleep in my bed. Which meant I shared a bed with Dad, who cried all night. It was the first and last time I ever saw my Dad cry, all 6’4” of him. When he finally was quietly snoring, I lay there and prayed to God. I was thinking about how my parents told me divorce was a sin, and the church did not allow it. Would I still be allowed to go to church? My Confirmation was coming up too, did I even believe in God? Then all those questions and doubts I had hidden away in my heart, that I dared not consider, came rushing up. I questioned all religion afterwards and my spiritual search officially began.
But every Christmas, even as an adult, I got out that crèche to ponder these mysterious questions. I remember the early joys of Christmas and try to recapture the spirit of the season. Unfortunately, a slacker ex-boyfriend allowed a storage unit’s fees to lapse whilst I was abroad, and the crèche was lost. A lot of my childhood collections of books and toys were lost too, but nothing hurt so much as that old, breaking Christmas scene my mother had trusted to my care. Then 10 years ago I moved in with my boyfriend; his mom loaded me down with all his Christmas stuff from childhood too… low and behold, he had the exact same crèche! Yes, one of the animals was missing, but I didn’t care. When I wound up the music and heard those familiar metal notes, tears came streaming down my cheeks. It is only now, when our daughter enjoys looking at and playing with it every year, does my husband understand why I wept that day.