On the day after Thanksgiving my dad would disappear into the attic while I waited at the foot of the ladder for him to bring them down. One by one, I wiped the dust from their crowns. We had the full set in faded plastic, melted in spots from summer storage in the Louisiana heat: Mary, Joseph, three wise men, two sleeping sheep, a donkey with a saddle, and a Baby Jesus in a manger. We lit them with a long orange extension cord plugged into a socket on the side of our house.
When we flipped the switch at twilight, I’d wait for my dad to go inside so he wouldn’t tease me, and then I’d kneel in the damp grass next to the wise men and say a Hail Mary and an Our Father. It seemed right to mark the climactic moment with prayer.
For a few days I would resist the urge to pick up Baby Jesus, worried that it might be sacrilegious. But eventually, sure nobody was looking, I’d lift him from the manger and cradle him in my arms, surprised, year after year, by his lightness. The other figures were filled with sand so they wouldn’t topple in the wind or blow down the street in a storm, the way our garbage cans did. But the infant was hollow and light as a feather.
Now that I have my own home and children, I’m tempted every year to disregard the norms of tasteful bourgeois Christmas decorations—monochromatic or topiary trees, real pine boughs, an amaryllis or two in sleek, modern pots—and buy a full light-up nativity set for the front yard, remembering my powerful attraction to that glowing Holy Family, in residence just outside my bedroom window all through Advent, Christmas, and sometimes, depending on my dad’s schedule, well into February.
Such a purchase, I know, would scandalize the college campus where we live, but I think people would secretly like it. I imagine a line of pilgrims forming on our road.
Growing up, our neighbors weren’t the type to have a lit plastic nativity set in the yard, but being serious Catholics, as most of us were, they did have a tasteful crèche in the bay window. I could just see the three elegant, carven figures from our driveway: Mary and Joseph bowing over the baby, swaddled in real white cloth and resting stiffly in a wooden manger, all bathed in soft blue light.
Sometimes after borrowing an egg or delivering a message from my mother, I’d stand before their window, gazing past my reflection at the scene. Once a reporter from the Slidell Sentry News took my picture for the “Neighbors” section of the Sunday paper.
Years later, when I visited at Christmas, I saw the picture hanging in their house among their family photos, framed, and I suddenly remembered being caught there at my little ritual, feeling simultaneously embarrassed and honored.
Every year on December 23, the same neighbors threw a Christmas Eve-Eve party, and all the neighborhood children received some small gift. The year I turned fourteen, I wore black tights, a black dress and way too much black eyeliner. I felt I’d outgrown sitting on Santa’s lap, so I snuck some rum into my coke and retreated to their backyard, alone, to lie in the hammock and watch the stars.
In the darkness I could just make out the outline of their shed, where on a night years before, their golden spaniel, named Mandy for the Barry Manilow song, gave birth. Their daughter led us into the dimness, and we crouched at a safe distance while the puppies emerged as tiny brown sacks. I was little enough that when one of them died, I was shocked by its fragility, but at fourteen, dwelled instead on the improbability that any should live.
As I lay there I began to feel a little drunk and sentimental. Also cold. Inside, the house was filled with chatter and clinks, the roaring laugh of our neighbor as Santa, the rooms warm and woody and dark but for the glow from the tree and the spotlight on the crèche in the window.
I shouldered through the local dignitaries, anonymous, out the front door, across the grass to our house, where my mother was recovering from her latest round of chemo, to open my silver-wrapped gift in my bedroom. It was a book of writing prompts. I prized it above all other presents, mostly because I felt that someone had finally taken me seriously. I read it cover to cover, again and again, lingering over the inscription, their vote of confidence in my abilities.
Still, I could never think of anything to write. I was oblivious to Mandy’s puppies, sleeping quietly, in my mind, in the glowing blue light of the creche, our own Holy Family fading in the yard outside my window, my mother suffering in bed. I was beginning to see, but I didn’t yet have the words.
Only the inclination, the urge to watch, to kneel, to pray.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.