It’s no secret that I am areligious. In fact, one of the most common jokes I make (or is made about me) is that I worship the devil. Of course, that is not a form of not-religion, but good luck convincing most people of that.
While I would like to believe there’s something greater out there, I fully admit I could never understand what that is, so while I do strive to be a better person and to try and make sense of life, the universe, and everything, I don’t prescribe to any set of rules or named deities.
That being said, I do have a nativity scene up for Christmas. Or, more specifically, a crèche, because that’s what my family always called it and my grandma was really into French for whatever reason. I cleared out a bookshelf at eye level in the great room area, and set up the figurines in the same way they were always set up when I was little. I don’t do this because I believe in Jesus Christ’s divinity, and I don’t do it to honor “the reason for the season” despite my stance. I unpack the box marked “manger” every year in someone from my family’s handwriting, this crazy sturdy, old box that’s been moved from state to state with staples all up and down its sides, and lovingly unwrap each king and lamb and angel because it’s the one constant that I’ve always had at Christmastime, and to me this crèche represents joy and goodness and hope.
So here’s what I was told about this set. My great uncle, so my maternal grandmother’s brother, collected the pieces one by one in the 1940s. I’m fairly certain the barn piece itself is not from that time, but the figures each still have the pencil marks on their bottoms with the price (between 5 and 15 cents). This story has always enchanted me.
First, when I was very little, I couldn’t imagine my great uncle ever being young himself, but when I got a bit older, I put myself in his shoes, trudging out into Boston’s winter, almost unimaginable to a child who had never even seen snow, with just a nickel in hand to the corner drug store to buy a single lamb to add to the collection.
I wasn’t allowed, or able, to touch the crèche when I was very small, as it was kept atop a hutch that typically housed other fancy breakables, but once I could reach it, I would play with it. I remember doing so in secret at first because I knew I shouldn’t be touching something so old or fragile, but I was always a careful, quiet kid, and quickly everyone got over it.
No one ever indoctrinated me into any religion throughout my life, and for that I am entirely grateful, but there was some “Christianity is the right one” background music. I mean, obviously, we had a nativity scene up and were celebrating Christmas, but I didn’t really know who Jesus was. My actual focus was on the animals. There was a long stretch of time I wanted to be “a farmer” when I grew up because in my head that was a person who just owned a bunch of animals and pet them all day, and the crèche was like my mini farm. It had sheep, and cows, a donkey, and even a camel! And my loose understanding of Jesus, deeply influenced by animated Christmas specials, was that the animals came to see him, and to me that was very similar to a Disney princess which was another aspiration of mine. Princess Christ, if you will.
When I was eleven and my mom and I moved out of the house I had lived in my entire memorable life with my grandparents to Ohio a thousand miles away, that first Christmas was pretty hard. It was nothing like the ones that had come before, except the crèche was there. It was always there.
It was there when we lived in that first city in Ohio when we started fresh and I finally started making friends, and then it was there when we moved less than twelve months after that to the most rural place I’d ever seen. It got put up in the tiny one bedroom apartment we lived in for a couple years, and then again put up in the house my mother built with her own fucking hands on seven acres where we actually did have real live cows. And then when we were forced out of the house and back into those tiny apartments, it was put up again. It saw me cry, it saw me go through a phase where I actually did believe in Jesus and so badly needed him to believe in me, and it watched that belief slowly fade away.
And now that I’m again a thousand miles away from the people I grew up with, including my mom, the one Christmas constant I have is this scene of the birth of the messiah from a religion I don’t follow, collected by a man who’s no longer alive and I hadn’t spoken to for at least a decade before he died, and passed down through three generations to a heathen. But despite everything it carries, it gets to look out on a different me, a married me, a happy grown up me, and even though I don’t hold what it represents literally, it is certainly a beacon of hope and joy in this house.