Our tabletop nativity scene features Baby Jesus, in fistfuls of fake hay, attended by Mary and Joseph, several reclining animals, three wise men and two bowlers.
“Tell me again why we have bowlers,” my wife says.
They were part of an “It’s a Wonderful Life” commemorative ornament collection on sale some years ago. At the time, we couldn’t afford George Bailey, or Mary, or even Zuzu and her petals. But the bowlers, in their ’40s gear and porkpie hats, were reasonably priced. They kept falling off the tree, though, and our cat kept trying to eat them. (He eats everything Christmas. Despite our best efforts, the litter box gets twinkly this time of year.)
So, we put them at the nativity scene, where everyone gets along. About this time, we realized there are no bowlers in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“That explains the reasonable price,” I said.
“Maybe they were edited out of the final cut,” my wife replied. “At least, now, they have a place to go.”
Everybody’s holiday has quirks like that. Odd stories, tiny rituals, things so small you forgot that you even forgot them. They lie dormant in the far closets, waiting on December. This time, we almost didn’t fish Christmas out.
“Can we skip it this year?” my wife asked last month. Like many of you, the tidings from our financial statements offered neither comfort nor joy.
This Christmas seemed ill-timed, like a balloon folder at a funeral home.
Nonetheless, last weekend found us plucking ornaments out of tissue.
A funny thing happens when you start jumping through the hoops. Memories rise, like dust off the boxes you pull from the shelves. The rituals you perform every year quietly unhook you from this one. And you drop, like a falling ornament, onto the branch of another Christmas.
Maybe it’s the one when you first argued how to set up the tree. Or the one when the faded decoration in your hand was flashy new. Maybe it’s the first, or last, Christmas you spent with someone dear to you.
As you recall those earlier holidays, you realize almost all of them were “ill-timed.” There was a baby on the way; a sick family member; job stress; bad financial times, blah-blah-blah. Holidays are tough love hard-wired into a calendar date.
You have to bring your game up. You have to make merry, because the merriment of others depends on it. You may feel out of place — like a bowler at the nativity scene. It doesn’t matter, you’re going in. And somewhere, between the yoke of expectation and the grit of just trying, your mood begins to lift. That’s why some of life’s best memories come from holidays ill-timed.
Every so often, I’ll decide our bowlers are blasphemous. I’ll head to the nativity scene, where they look oddly reverent, straining to glimpse divinity from behind an oversized lamb. It makes no sense, but it feels kind of right.
Christmas is weirdly inclusive that way. I wish you the best with yours.