“Come on downstairs. You’ve got to see the Polish Christmas tree,” said the father of one of my best friends. I was probably a teenager or maybe in college and was spending time at her house during the holidays. We trudged down to the basement to behold a Christmas tree with branches jutting out at odd angles and covered with a hodge-podge of decorations. But what really caught your eye were the globs of shiny icicles just thrown helter-skelter all over it. It was stunningly ugly. Her dad announced with pride, “Now, that’s the way we decorate a tree in the coal regions. Get a couple drinks in and then stand back and throw that tinsel, baby.”
My friend was one of four children growing up in a boisterous household where anything could happen and usually did. I was an only child of older parents accustomed to a more sedate lifestyle surrounded by adults, and I loved being swept up in the whirlwind of her family. Our parents met as newly-weds living in adjacent apartments and became lifelong friends. Our families attended the same church, the kids went to the same school, and my friend and I shared the best of childhood—the trips to Hershey Park and the beach and the picnics and parties—all led by her Dad’s enthusiasm, laughter, and flat-out joy in life. No one could dance at the local German club or enjoy a beer or race ahead of us kids to get in line for the roller coaster the way her dad could.
As adults, my friend and I didn’t see each other often but we always managed to stay in touch. When my own dad became bed-ridden, her dad would show up at the back door and say, “I just had to see John, today. See how he was doing, see if there was anything I could do. You call me if there’s anything, anytime, day or night.” And he meant every word. He channeled his boundless energy into taking care of everyone he knew in the small town where we grew up. As my friend said to me recently, “He just wanted to help to the point that sometimes it got on your nerves.”
This week, my friend’s dad went home to Jesus, and I kept remembering that Polish Christmas tree as I painstakingly decorated my own tree. Those of us left behind have been blessed by this kind man’s presence, his humor, and his heart that had room for all. I’m sure he’s already had a beer or two with God and is driving the angels crazy asking how he can help. And since it’s almost Christmas, I hope he’s standing back and throwing tinsel at a sparse little evergreen, introducing all his friends in heaven to a Polish Christmas tree.
As I listen to the organ introduction to O Come All Ye Faithful, I’m nervous, as though I’m about to launch into an aria from the Messiah. My singing voice, mostly unused since March, sounds dry and pinched against the subdued strains of the organ coming through the headphones. It’s like an athlete gone to seed, sitting in the bar reminiscing about the good old days when it was scoring touchdowns.
I struggle with all this equipment needed to record. I simply cannot keep those damn little earbuds in my ears, so I appear in videos with gigantic headphones looking like I’m ready to flag planes into the airport. I open sound files on the phone or laptop while my husband operates the high-tech recorder we bought so these home productions would have a decent quality. I listen to the introduction, make sure I’m on the correct verse, and try to time my entrance to coincide perfectly with the accompaniment, which doesn’t always happen. The recordings are merciless—they expose me in all of my musical ineptitude. I sing alone without the comfort of other voices blending with mine in the sometimes flawed, yet glorious tapestry of sound that is choir. And then there’s the uploading of files– are they going to the right place and will they open and, if they do, can my mistakes be edited out?
As I record carols that are as familiar to me as my own name, I try to picture the church on Christmas Eve instead of worrying about the dog barking or singing the wrong words. The jostling bodies and excited anticipation of lining up at the back of the sanctuary as sneaker-clad acolytes light the tapers and the crucifer stands ready, waiting for the precise moment to lift the cross and start up the aisle. The procession moving past pews packed with parishioners and their family members home from afar along with those who only show up twice a year. Our voices, perhaps tired from earlier services, but still singing festive anthems with gusto. The banks of poinsettias and candlelit Silent Night and a few of us altos bravely scaling the heights of the soprano descant in Hark the Herald Angels Sing.
This year, hearing those carols through phone and laptop speakers will have to suffice, and I suppose in time I will become less anxious and more adept at singing virtually. We’ve ordered Bluetooth earphones that may fit me better, and I could (and should) practice more frequently to keep my voice in condition. If nothing else, the pandemic has taught me I can get used to almost anything. It’s also taught me how much I took the gift of singing with others for granted. I’m tired of singing alone into a machine. I will be so grateful when I can raise my folder, take a deep breath, and see reflected in the eyes of my fellow singers, the joy of once again making music together.
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.”