My Grandparents’ Creche

I always put up two creches at Christmas. The one in our family room came from a 1960’s Woolworth’s, where it was displayed in the same aisle as the plastic window candles and aluminum trees. Some of the figures still have price tags on the bottom that say twenty-nine cents. A few of the lambs are amputees and the original cardboard stable has long since disintegrated, but this is the creche I grew up with, and I still cherish its delightful tackiness.

My other creche is a work of art, one of the things I would save if the house was on fire. My grandmother “did ceramics” as it was referred to in those days, and hand-painted each figurine in exquisite detail. She dedicated countless hours of tedious work to create a gift for my grandfather who built the stable. The wooden box he designed is as solid and unblemished today as it was that very first Christmas. Inscribed on the bottom of each piece are their initials, like teenage lovers’ names carved into a tree, “ALD to JDD, 1959.”

On Christmas Eve, I would walk a block down the street to their home, carefully remove the baby Jesus from his bed of tissue paper in a Carolina Soap box, and gently place him in the manger, followed by my grandparents and me standing in front of the fireplace singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” As staunch Episcopalians, we believed in liturgical correctness, so the baby never arrived in the manger before Christmas Eve, and the Magi were always strategically placed, approaching from the east.

After my grandparents passed away, the creche moved to my father’s home. Even in his last years, he insisted that it be retrieved from the cupboard beside the stairs and set up in the same place as its predecessor from the five-and-ten. And when the creche finally came to me, I wept as I placed Mary and Joseph in that simple wooden stable on my grandmother’s desk, now in my own living room.

Every December, when I unwrap each piece, I marvel at the rich purple colors of the kings’ robes, the almost lifelike eyes of the human figures, the wonder on the face of the kneeling shepherd boy who has earned a place of honor inside the stable itself. I run my hands over the texture of the saddle on the camel, the pointed wings of the angel with her “Gloria in Excelsis” banner, the empty indentation of the manger bed, waiting for its holy occupant. I place that same soap box with the words “Baby Jesus” scrawled on the lid in my grandmother’s handwriting, into a cubby of her desk where it waits, like the rest of us, during the dark weeks of Advent.

I picture my grandmother, in her ceramics room filled with paint-spattered card tables, crumpled rags, and brushes soaking in peanut butter jars. I imagine her sitting there in her smock, deciding on the colors, using that miniscule brush to outline the eyes of the figures and the words on the angel’s banner, applying the extra coat of glaze to give a sheen to the animals’ coats. I think of my grandfather, puttering in his basement workshop after a long day of seeing patients, selecting just the right pieces of wood, cutting, and sanding and nailing them together to create a perfect miniature stable. I think of the joy and pride they must have experienced on Christmas Eve 1959, seeing their gift to God and each other, displayed for the first time between two miniature evergreen trees on the mantel above their fireplace.

The people who celebrated Christmas with me as a child are gone now. But in the ritual of the creche, I feel their presence. Their hands guide me as I unfold and smooth the green fabric that goes under the stable, position the light to shine directly down on the manger bed, and make sure the angel is properly anchored on her little hook. In that creche, I smell the pine branches and the wood smoke from the fireplace as I walk into my grandparents’ home on Christmas Eve, wearing my new velvet dress with the pink rose, ready for my first ever midnight mass. I taste the eggnog sprinkled with nutmeg in my grandmother’s antique crystal punch cup. I hear my grandfather’s slightly off-key singing and years later, my dad’s weakened voice on the phone, asking when I’m going to stop by and set up the manger for him.

I spend Christmas Eves now surrounded and loved by other people. People for whom my grandmother’s creche is simply a beautiful decoration. We arrive home from church each year energized by the glorious music and the excitement of Christmas coming once again. We chatter about the service and what time to have dinner the next day, as I pour cups of eggnog spiked with rum and set out plates of homemade cookies.

Before I go to bed, I walk into the darkened living room, lit only by window candles and the lights surrounding the manger. On top of the desk is a picture of my smiling grandparents, standing in front of a Christmas tree, arms tightly clasped around each other’s waists. I still miss them. I close my eyes and thank them for magical childhood Christmases and for teaching me that this creche, made with their own loving hands, is at the center of it all.

I reach into the cubby in the desk and pull out the Carolina Soap box. I remove the baby from its tissue paper womb, and my hands, now speckled with age spots like my grandmother’s, once again place the tiny baby in the manger as I quietly sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

A Perspective on the Demise of Midnight Mass

I realize I’m a curmudgeonly dinosaur, but I miss late-night church on Christmas Eve. I know, I know, everyone’s exhausted and has obligations the next day, and no one wants to come out at that hour anymore, but I still miss it.

I was about seven when my parents decided I was old enough to go to midnight mass with them on Christmas Eve, and I could barely contain my excitement. After the starkness of Advent, I was awestruck walking into the candlelit church, bedecked with garlands of real pine and laurel and with banks of brilliant poinsettias filling the chancel. That child-like joy has remained with me over the years, and I don’t think I have missed a Christmas Eve late service ever since.

There is something about going to church in the middle of the night that makes the mystery of Christ’s birth all the more meaningful. Once a year, we make the effort to say this is special, this is a wondrous event that pulls us out of the realm of the mundane. In the church where I grew up, at the stroke of midnight, the service paused as the baby Jesus was gently placed in the manger. To me, that was Christmas, and everything else was just window-dressing.

But like so many things in mainline churches, all has changed in an effort to keep getting those elusive bodies into the pews. I suspect God doesn’t care when you worship, and it’s better to be practical and offer services when people are willing to come. The first time I attended the midnight service in my current church, the ushers wore tuxes. Now, sadly, we struggle to get enough ushers to volunteer. After years of decreasing attendance at the late service and threats of mutiny amongst the choir members, the decision was made to move the service earlier, and it looks like that will stand for the foreseeable future.

Last year, we fulfilled our commitments at our home church and then attended a midnight service in a nearby town. The sanctuary was filled to capacity and it was a glorious celebration. I shed a few tears for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it just felt so good and so much like the Christmases I knew growing up. When we looked at church websites to find a late service for this year, there were few listed, so I’m not sure if we’ll get to one or not.

In the meantime, my husband and I have been rehearsing with the choir of a church where a friend and former teaching colleague is the director. We’re helping to sing their cantata because it might be the last time I get to do this. My friend is fighting a deadly form of cancer and he’s tired and the treatment has taken its toll. I’m there partly because I want to sing and partly in case he needs a back-up conductor.  He’s still very much himself, though, full of snarky remarks and loving his music schmaltzy and over-the-top. But as we sang Dan Forrest’s gorgeous arrangement of Silent Night, and I watched my friend’s face glow with pride and emotion, I thought this cantata service may well be my midnight mass this year–a wondrous event that pulls us out of the realm of the mundane. Everything else is just window-dressing.

St. John's star

 

 

 

Quiet Season

This weekend I have been reminded of the beauty and peace to be found in quiet. In dialing back and dialing down from the hype and the shouting and the constant bombardment of, well, almost everything these days.

A good friend joined us for a lovely and simple Thanksgiving dinner accompanied by the view of the creek and wildlife outside our Ocean Pines home. We are at the stage in our lives where holidays don’t always involve complicated meals planned and prepped for days for a crowd around a dining room table laden with china and crystal glassware. Not that I don’t occasionally enjoy hosting meals like that, but I’ve discovered  turkey tastes just as good eaten from Corningware plates using unmatched kitchen silverware.

Assateague pony (2)Ocean City, minus the crazed summer vacationers, gratefully sets aside all the trappings of a resort and reverts back to its charming small-town self. Walking the pathways and beaches of the nearly deserted Assateague Island looking for ponies feels far more productive than rushing to spend money on more stuff we don’t need. Sitting in a nearly empty theater watching Tom Hanks work his magic in the movie about the life of Mr. Rogers was a profound testimonial to the power of gentleness and remaining quiet, of taking the time to listen and really hear what others are saying. There is a scene in the movie where Mr. Rogers asks the troubled man with him to “close your eyes for a full minute and think about all the people whose love brought you into being.” I suspect everyone in the theater did the same thing.

st Paul's by the sea (2)On Sunday, we attended our home-away-from-home church a block from the boardwalk. It is a small church with a dwindling congregation and yet there is always a moving and powerful message from the rector and a warm welcome from the parishioners who know us as “the singers.” I am grateful to be part of a denomination which cherishes the quiet anticipation of Advent instead of rushing headlong into Christmas. Our sanctuaries are unadorned with greenery until that final Sunday before Christmas, and we sing beautiful Advent hymns rather than Christmas carols. I love my over-the-top Christmas trees and the excitement of the season as much as anyone, and yet, the older I get, the more I appreciate the feeling of expectation, of saving the best for last.

We’ve been coming to the beach at Thanksgiving for years. When we were both teaching, it was a brief respite from the crazy schedule of concerts and school obligations that filled our Decembers. The days when we decorated Christmas trees late at night and tried to cram in pre-internet shopping whenever we could. Our lives are considerably less frenzied now and yet, perhaps more than ever, given the social and political climate in which we live, I need to watch the ducks floating by on Manklin Creek while a heron soars into the sky on its majestic wings. To see the rough-coated ponies of Assateague meandering down the road, stopping to nibble some grass, flicking their tails in the late afternoon sunlight. To hear the eternal sound of the ocean waves lapping the shore as a hardy and brave surfer emerges from the icy cold water in his wetsuit. To curl up on the sofa and read the stories of Wendell Berry for the first time.

Tomorrow, we go home to rehearsals and appointments and getting the Christmas tree and stressing about everything we read and hear on the news. We go back to texts and emails and to-do lists. In the midst of this over-commercialized time of year, in the midst of angry words coming at us from all directions, in the midst of unrealistic expectations of Hallmark-movie-perfect holidays, I remind myself to hold fast to quiet season at the beach—to the beauty of nature undisturbed and being still long enough to hear the voices around us.

Assateague ocean

To Those of You in the Back Pew…

            There have been more of you recently sitting there in the back pew or along the sparsely populated sides. You look a little nervous, a little uncomfortable. You’re young–maybe in your 30’s, maybe you have a small child or two with you. You’re not sure if this is the right place, but you’re seeking. Something. Maybe you don’t even know what that is yet. Or now that you have children, you need a place for them to learn about God. You’ve passed this lovely old church many times on your way to the farmer’s market or a restaurant and thought to yourself, “Why not give this one a try?”

            The people at the door are dressed up but they welcome you warmly. Worship is more formal than what you may be used to or perhaps you’re not used to a church at all. The service starts and ends with a sort of parade with someone carrying a big cross and kids carrying candles and a book covered in gold. There are no screens or electronic instruments, but there is beautiful organ music and a choir that sings well. The service involves a lot of standing up and sitting down and even kneeling. Everyone around you seems to know what to do, and you may feel a little lost at times. But the pastor in the colorful robe is friendly and preaches a wonderful sermon and people shake your hand and ask your name and your children’s names and invite you for coffee and cookies afterwards. You walk up to take communion and watch what everyone else does so you don’t make a fool of yourself at the rail. Many of the attendees are older but there’s a smattering of young families and a teen-aged boy in the choir and something about this place feels ok, if a little intimidating.

            Let me tell you something. I was one of you once. I sat here alone in a side pew for the first time 25 years ago when I was at a low point in my life. Although I knew the service, I didn’t know a single soul until a lady named Zoe swept by and invited me to join the choir. My life hasn’t been the same since. These are My People. This is a good place to be.  A place to heal, to learn, to become a more whole person. To find a way to better serve God and those around you. Whatever you need, you can find it here. Let this church be as one of our members recently put it, your “Oasis of beauty in a dark and troubling world.”

            We are the artisanal denomination, the farm-to-table church. We believe that there is still value in some of the old ways. That gracious and reverent worship using beautiful language and beautiful music is ok. That for one hour a week, we can set aside our constant need for screen time and self-gratification and be still and know that He/She is God. And if my observations are correct, there seems to be an increasing hunger, especially among those of you who are young, for calm, meaningful and yes, liturgical worship. The comfort of a quiet, candlelit sanctuary and the rhythm of familiar prayers temporarily erase all the shouting in the world. There is powerful sustenance in the weekly meal of bread and wine. There is peace and hope and as our wonderful leader has recently been broadcasting from the rooftops, there is love here. For all.

            So, to those of you in the back pew who are tiptoeing hesitantly into the waters of worship, keep coming back. I know, all this rigmarole in a church service takes some getting used to (ask my husband) and we may be a tad formal compared to the big suburban churches but give us some time. There is a Zoe, an angel, here for every one of you. Who will help you find what you are seeking. This is a good place to be.