by Keith Hoffman
December 24th, 2013
I should have felt guilty as I stood in that damp November night air in the parking lot of a seedy motel on the Ohio/Indiana border hunched over an 80-year-old nativity scene in an old cardboard box.
But I didn’t.
Instead I felt victorious as I savored the memory my big sister’s untimely death.
And to think the journey that lead up to this moment began so innocently.
“Your father had nothing to do with the building that nativity scene,” my mother would repeat once again in an exhausted, exasperated tone.
But I still didn’t believe her.
This was the routine we had every single December of my childhood when I asked if I could haul the nativity scene out of the attic and place it inside our faux plaster fireplace.
“Your father couldn’t put together your plastic Hot Wheels track. Why do you think he could ever build something like this?”
She had a point. But ever since my father’s death when I was seven, the legend of him building this crèche had only grown in my mind.
“He said he helped Grandpa,” I would remind her stubbornly.
“If he helped your grandpa, he helped him by not helping him which, by the way, he was an expert at.”
My mom had a passionate and volatile relationship with my father that continued long after his death.
But none of that mattered as I pulled the nativity scene out of the old beat-up cardboard box and placed it on a piece of worn green felt before unwrapping each figurine from yellowed pieces of newspaper filled with old-fashioned ads and long-forgotten news stories from before I was born.
The wooden manger was about the size of a portable TV and shaped like a log cabin with a pointed roof. The weathered plywood was covered in twigs that were nailed to it and that I was sure my father gathered tirelessly in the woods.
The inside walls were decorated with shiny gold foil and the top back wall contained a spare light bulb in a socket that sent a warm glow over the entire scene.
The cast of characters consisted of the usual suspects: Mary, Joseph, a mule, a cow (the apparent owner of the manger), a shepherd, two sheep, three wise men and a camel (no matter that the wise men didn’t arrive until a year later—who minds a little artistic license now and then?). Finally there was an angel that I attached to a little hook at the top of the pointed roof. The figures were painted in bright colors of blue, purple orange, green and gold. I loved examining the details of each fold of their robes, and the blue of their expressive eyes and red of their tiny lips. Many, like the shepherd, had exotic locations like Italy where they were made stenciled surreptitiously on their base. Others had less glamorous secrets on their undersides such as poor hapless Joseph with a sticker that read 89 cents.
Some of the ceramic statues were extremely old– most likely from the day the crèche was built. But over the years of small energetic children and big clumsy pets, many had been broken and replaced. The result was that new Joseph was a giant next to old Mary (a fact in which he politely made less obvious by continually kneeling). The wise men were also not proportionate to each other and brought two Frankincenses and one Gold apparently getting their wires crossed about who was supposed to bring the Myrrh.
Gloria was my favorite. She was the angel on top. For many Christmases she flew under a big tin foil gold star until an atheist cat ate it during my teenage years. I didn’t realize until much later that the angel’s name wasn’t really Gloria. That was simply a banner she held. I assumed throughout my childhood that the banner was like a nametag angels carried around so that God in heaven could remember who they were at celestial gatherings without some saint behind him whispering, “This is Gabriel, he told Mary she was pregnant and smote those Egyptians when he was younger.”
At some point Baby Jesus went from a tiny cracked ceramic babe wrapped in swaddling clothes to a large plastic seeming one-year-old with a full head of hair and weirdly…six-pack abs.
Mary was doing amazingly well after giving birth to that one.
Baby Jesus was the whole point of the scene of course and he didn’t make his arrival until midnight on Christmas Eve (no dramatic license allowed when it comes to Jesus). For as long as I can remember my job was to put Baby Jesus in the crib at exactly midnight. During the early years it was quite a feat staying awake to perform this ceremony, but I knew it was important and eyed the second hand of the clock like a hawk so I could perform this sacred task at the exact right moment.
It wasn’t like the rest of the family stood around and observed me with reverence—that was not my family’s style. We were more of a “eat too much White Castles and cookies and get really drunk and play games and fight” type family. So while everyone else got in “loud discussions” in the other rooms—I lay on the floor in my green and white striped footie pajamas and stared rapturously at the freakishly large plastic newborn.
No matter what was going on in my life each year, inside this crèche was peace and familial love and magic.
The nativity scene got left home during college. My freshman dorm roommates were already wary of my extensive Barbra Streisand vinyl collection without me bringing Gloria and company into the mix. Still, I made it home for Christmas and performed my duties even if I was often drunk and high while doing it.
When I moved to New York City in my twenties, I couldn’t afford to fly home and I fiercely missed the Nativity scene that my father allegedly didn’t help build. I begged my mother for it each year but my big sister Julie put her foot down every time. Julie was the only sister of five children and she was right smack in the middle age-wise. I loved Julie and she loved me but on this topic we vehemently disagreed.
Julie was the self-assigned keeper of the Hoffman heirlooms. We were not a wealthy family so this mainly consisted of items such as chipped ashtrays, cracked coffee tables and a cast iron skillet. With a list like that you can see why this nativity scene was coveted. It wasn’t even like she wanted it for herself. She was just certain her scattered-brained little brother would lose it somewhere in the big city and it would be gone from the family forever.
I was the youngest though and I could still wrap my mother around my little finger.
One day in November in the early 80’s she secretly mailed the crèche to me. When I received it, I quickly hid it in the back of my closet as if the nativity figures where the Frank family and my sister was a blood thirsty Nazi.
And when Julie did discover them missing that Christmas you would have thought the Von Trapps had escaped from the Austrian Music Festival right under her nose.
“You are not keeping that,” she said with menace into the phone.
“Mother said I could!” I retorted using an old standby that had worked for the last twentysomething years.
“We’ll see,” concluded Julie in a tone that made me fear for our mom’s life.
But I did manage to keep it, and over the years never once missed putting Baby Jesus in the crib. Even if I wasn’t home I would bring it with me wherever I was visiting and make everyone be quiet while I played Stevie Nick’s version of Silent Night featuring Robbie Neville and placed Baby Jesus in the crib. (Stevie was a tradition started in the late 80’s and is not a Bible-approved addition to the ceremony).
Putting Baby Jesus in the crib was still every bit as magic.
Putting Baby Jesus in the crib even started a seven-and-a-half year relationship…but that’s a whole other story for another time.
The crèche went through some rough years when my cat Binky was alive. He would repeatedly crawl inside for the warmth of the light bulb causing massive destruction in his wake. My boyfriend gave me a card one Christmas with a beautiful sentiment:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people…and then a giant black and white cat laid down on top of them and crushed them all.
But Julie was not amused. It was the one topic she found no humor in.
“My nativity scene looks great in its new LA home!” I would say teasingly on the phone.
“Not funny,” my sister who found everything funny would reply tersely. She was determined to get that nativity scene back in Cincinnati where it belonged and me moving it further away from that destination only strengthened her resolve.
When she came to visit, I was always a polite host but made damn sure I never let her out of my sight in my home even in the middle of summer when the object of our seemingly endless custody battle was securely packed away.
But finally our endless custody battle did end.
My sister pulled a fast one on our family and died suddenly on a horrendous and long September day.
Losing her turned my world upside down. Even with this crèche thing sticking in our collective craw, she and I could not have adored each other more.
The loss was only made more raw by my mother dying four months later so I was more than happy at the end of that terrible year when I had a chance to move back to New York from Los Angeles and start life fresh with a new job.
Movers took most of my stuff ahead, but the crèche was coming with me and my dog in the Mini Cooper. I trusted no one with it—especially since I wasn’t convinced my sister’s spirit wouldn’t somehow destroy it out of spite.
Every night of my trip across country I unpacked the crèche in the same box my mom mailed it in with my address written in her handwriting on the top, and brought it inside safe and sound from thieves and vengeful ghosts.
I loved that crèche and felt comfort and joy every time I pulled it out of the car. I would think about those objects inside—even though they were lifeless they had life for me—joyful, vibrant and nostalgic energy of Christmas’ past. They had brought a consistency to what was too often my tumultuous life. They were silent witnesses of where I was–for better or worse–every Christmas season when I let them out of the box. Sometimes during my particularly bad times I was embarrassed for them to see me. “Haven’t you improved at all this year??” Mary’s self-righteous face would seem to say. It was particularly hard living up to her standards. I always felt the swarthy, sultry shepherd understood me and my foibles much better.
And that was what I was doing in that motel in Indiana when that feeling struck me.
I was pulling the Nativity scene that I loved for over fifty years—that was old already when I started loving it—out of the back of my car. My trip had been nostalgic and melancholy especially as I approached Cincinnati—the place where I grew up with it and the place where lost my sister. But that night as I lugged out the box out I suddenly smiled.
“I won,” I thought to myself with a slight chuckle. “Now you can never make me return this to Mother,” I whispered tauntingly to the heavens.
It was a small victory—and possibly looked at as insensitive by others—but to me, finding a silver lining after that mess of a year was a true Christmas Miracle.
So tonight when place baby Jesus in the manger at exactly midnight once again I will wonder if my stubborn sister has forgiven my mother and me.
And I will think to myself, “Has she finally stopped being angry that I have it?”
But I’m already pretty sure I know the answer.