When Wax Softens, Light Shines Through
A few years ago, I purchased a little nativity scene that held a tea light inside. There it sat at a local fair trade holiday sale, a surprisingly Christian symbol on a table strewn with reindeer, snowmen, the pointy shapes of evergreen trees, and other apparently more secular reminders of the holiday season.
I hesitated. I’d long since discarded, I thought, most traditional Jesus-centered observances at Christmastime. Every December my interfaith family throws open its home to the promise of light, whether that be the light of eight candles burning, the light found in a tiny baby’s new life, or the return of light after the darkness of the solstice. We decorate our home in hues of blue and white, red and green, mixed together in a blend that nevertheless recognizes each tradition as its own, and the progressive religious tradition in which I’ve long found a home celebrates many meanings in the December season.
My hand hovered over the candle holder, with stars cut through the dome of sky to let the candle’s light out. Painted in matte colors with basic, almost childish strokes, Mary and Joseph cluster around the figure in a tiny cradle, simple houses and desert plants hovering in the background. No wise men, shepherds, or angels visit the scene, just the one small, growing family, and stars hanging in the sky above.
I brought the nativity scene home, and set it on our table.
* * *
Every year it hits me, this nostalgia, a backwards glance at Christmases past. It’s my own version of the December dilemma, the difficulty of a holiday connected to and yet separate from the specificity of one tradition. Could I do Christmas without Christ, as I’d been doing for years, letting angels, snowmen and scented evergreen stand in for all the other meanings of the season? Yes, my mind wanted to say, of course I can! After all, our modern-day Christmas originates with the merging of the Roman holiday Saturnalia as a convenient time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, later layered with northern European traditions of Father Christmas and evergreen trees.
And yet, purchasing the little nativity scene convinced me that I had unfinished business with the religion of my youth, and that winter, I went back to the denomination I hadn’t visited in years, one that lights an Advent wreath and sings the real words to hymns like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Once in Royal David’s City,” rather than universalized alternatives set to the same tunes. I decided to give putting Christ back in Christmas a thorough church season or two of effort. Wouldn’t it be more honest to keep this reason for the season intact, if I still felt drawn to it? Didn’t it make sense to return to a place where a single symbol conveyed a world of meaning?
* * *
When I was a child, we set our nativity scene up on a Japanese-style medicine cabinet that stood in the front hallway. When I was old enough to carefully remove the wooden figurines from the funny shredded paper packaging that kept Mary, Joseph, the wise men, and a few shepherds and angels safe from year to year, it felt like a rite of passage. I’d attained an age when I could handle delicate, sacred matters, carefully arranging Joseph and Mary around the empty wooden cradle, hanging the biggest, blue-robed angel, the one with a white “Gloria in excelsis” banner, on the old nail at the top of the rough wooden scene.
Jesus always sank during the year to the bottom of the paper shavings, and we’d put his naked little plastic self into one of the top drawers of the cabinet, one of the drawers that didn’t contain a host of unused coupon clippings or random stashes of ribbons, buttons, and other long-forgotten supplies. Come Christmas morning, my brother and I were too busy with Santa, stockings, and a plate full of once-a-year Christmas cookies to worry too much about the baby hidden in his dark, lonely manger of a deep wooden drawer. My parents watched us opening gifts, the baby Jesus equally forgotten, our parents equally sidelined by the effusive magic of the present morning.
Usually we remembered Jesus sometime in the early afternoon, after the presents had been opened, breakfast cleared away, my brother and I lost in a pile of new packages, my mom in the kitchen preparing a traditional Christmas dinner. Inevitably, someone would call out, “we forgot the baby Jesus!” and we’d all laugh, run to the manger scene, tenderly lay the naked plastic figure in his cradle, and return to our other activities.
* * *
Nostalgia paints the world in tones of sepia and roses, offering a false picture of a past that may not keep its promises for the present. Leigh Eric Schmidt, in his now-classic book Consumer Rites (which explores the consumerist origins of our modern holiday traditions), translates the yearly December nostalgia as a concern in “modern, industrialized societies for the genuine, the handcrafted, the authentic, or the real. Modern holidays and their rituals are thought to be sadly insubstantial, ersatz, or hollow; they are never so good, genuine, joyous, or fulfilling as they used to be.”
If it seemed that my own celebration of December holidays had fallen prey to this suspicion, to the fear that my winter-themed, commercialized holiday was somehow in tension with a more “original” meaning, that complaint didn’t quite match the mood in which I bought the blue nativity scene. We kept the Maccabees in Hannukah alongside our menorah and eight days of gifts; why did I feel I had to celebrate a Christ-less Christmas? My nostalgia-fueled holiday critique bypassed the issue of commercialism and went, instead, straight to questions of religious certainty and substance.
There it was on my dining room table, that seemingly innocuous symbol. “What a cute family!” my five-year-old daughter exclaimed as soon as she saw it, asking immediately that the family face her, and not her sister, as we sat down to eat. How could I explain that this wasn’t just any family; this was Jesus and his family?
That night, we lit candles for Hannukah; we lit a tea light in the nativity scene. I stumbled through an explanation that Christmas––in addition to being a time of warmth and light and family closeness in the dark time of year, not to mention the gift-giving that was paramount in my daughters’ minds––was also the celebration of the birth of the little baby in that scene right there, and that Christians believe this baby came to save the world.
My academic explanation didn’t last long with my five-year-old; she wanted to know what her parent believed. I wanted to know, too.
In trying out my childhood church again, I wanted to touch something holy as if it could be solid and certain. If I could welcome the baby Jesus onto my dining room table, surely there was room in my heart, mind, and body for one more layer of meaning?
I stuck with my childhood church tradition until Easter, feeling the familiar rituals of crossing myself, kneeling for confession, and taking Communion. The actions settled through my body like warm hot chocolate after a long time out in the snowy cold. By Easter, though, my mind had failed to catch up. Words about the “only son of God” stuck in my throat alongside unshed tears, and I found myself thinking about my daughter’s interest in the little family at the manger. Did it have to represent just that one particular family? Couldn’t God be found in more persons than just this one? Could I not also sing, in a riff on Leonard Cohen’s song “Who by Fire,” who in a manger; who in a refugee camp; who on a dusty plain, a humble home, an antiseptic hospital? Which flickering flame of life would provide hope when it was needed most?
Symbols hold not just one meaning, but many. They convey truth not because they are unequivocal, but because they’re multivalent, metaphorical. Wax melts when touched by a candle’s flame; it softens like a heart, and shifts.
Nostalgia looks back to a past supposedly more whole, more perfect, more full of promise than the present moment, but Advent, as a season of the church, looks forward in hope to the coming of a better day. What an irony that we spend so much time dreaming of Christmases past and their possible perfections!
In the wrong hands, nostalgia can be dangerous. It gives a false picture of a past that never was. Jesus has never truly been the only reason for the season, any more than America once was greater than it is now. Most of our holiday nostalgia, thankfully, is no more dangerous than baby Jesus being forgotten in a coupon drawer, but nostalgia’s sticky emotional resonance can lead us away from the promises and challenges of the present into an unfounded feeling of what we might have lost. We fear we can’t live up to the past; we face depression, loneliness, and despair as we try to make the holidays shine ever more brightly.
Nostalgia’s illusion can make the holiday season more laden with difficult emotion than it needs to be. Memory creates a powerful pull in that we think we should feel a certain feeling when the holidays roll round, but when we don’t, we assume, automatically, that we’re in the wrong. We assume we’ve fallen away from how things were, a how that must have been more certain, more solid, more joyous than we knew. The truth of both Christmas past and present may be closer, in fact, to the dull ache of difference, a thought can ease our way to holidays of the future. If we can let go of the idea of one single truth or one perfect past, perhaps we can find a little bit of Christmas peace.
In Winifred Gallagher’s Working on God, a memoir of exploring faith after years of leaving church deep in her own past, she interviews an Episcopal priest who was raised in the Salvation Army. “I don’t go back to the Salvation Army,” the priest says, “but I miss it terribly. There’s this sadness about not being there, because even the soap in the bathroom smells right!” It’s possible, the priest realizes, to find spiritual maturity in knowing when one needs to move beyond one’s nostalgic memories, even the memories that smell right, or that feel so familiar deep within the body. Advent challenges cultural Christians, post-Christians, and believers alike to embrace not old nostalgic memories, but new meanings, ones that bring hope for the future.
I sometimes still return to that same church, but I no longer expect it to feel the same as it once did. To miss a tradition doesn’t make it false, but missing it also doesn’t mean it holds the corner on truth, either. Truth, at least as far as memory and tradition are concerned, shines through when something solid softens, and becomes malleable.
Light flickers out through the stars cut in the sky of the nativity scene. Is this a light that shone for just that one holy season, or is it a light that shines when we need the reminder of hope the most? This time, I do not need one answer; the way the candle dances is enough.
Emily Ruth Mace is co-editor-in-chief at KtB. She's a freelance editor, writer and religious studies alt-academic with an interest in religious liberalism and life at the borders of traditional religion and spirituality. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. In addition to KtB, her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Mama, Religion Dispatches, the Chronicle Vitae, and others. A one-time bicoastal resident of California and New England, she currently lives outside Chicago, and can be found online at emilyrmace.com and Tweeting occasionally at @lemilym.