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Former Facts & Arguments editor Lori Fazari still chuckles when she reads Bill Bunn’s romp from 2007. It captures the innocence and zaniness of life with small children.
Away from the manger: The Jesus figure in our crèche would not stay put, Bill Bunn writes. And then he lost his head
One Christmas, Linda bought the kids a plastic manger scene. She wanted the children to interact with the figures, play with the players, major and minor.
I agreed with her. There's no better way to get into a story than being able to interact with it in some physical way. Here were all the season's big stars – the baby Christ, the angels, the shepherds, Joseph, Mary and the barnyard cast – built from durable, kid-friendly plastic.
At the beginning of December, when we decorated the house for Christmas, we set up the new manger scene. But we had forgotten about the democracy of toys. In this republic, all toys – regardless of symbolic value – are created equal. And any toy may interact with any other, depending only on the elasticity of the operator’s imagination.
Understandably, Christ and cast were popular. Everyone seemed to want him around. Christ would not stay put.
The baby Jesus ended up visiting with our Lego populace. He frequented the company of stuffed animals, despite the immense difference in scale. Another time, I found Jesus stuffed into the chimney of a dollhouse. He was helping his brother, Santa, the kids explained. I found him driving the Barbie Corvette with Barbie, down at the end of the hall.
The rest of the cast took their cue from the baby. I saw a wise man and the donkey, helping a farmer drive a tractor in a castle. I found Mary and another wise man helping a set of Lego firemen rescue animals and medieval soldiers from a train wreck. It was as if the manger was only a pose, like a picture taken at a party that the stable cast would strike for a moment, a starting point from which they would begin.
Then, Jesus lost his head. One of our children or one of his or her friends had broken the head off the plastic Jesus. He was a toy, and the heads of toys are often removable. A child had tried removing it but ended up breaking it off.
In our hearts we were deeply disturbed. It was okay for Barbie to lose her head, or Ken to lose his, but not the Christ child. Who would do such a thing? Why not one of the shepherds? Why not Joseph? But the body was found headless, the plastic neck snapped.
We searched for the head in the big Lego tub. In the toy boxes in people's rooms. In drawers and under beds. No head.
Who had beheaded the Christ child? This was a deliberate act. So began our crusade.
"Who took Jesus' head?" we asked, and we heard silence. We asked the question in many different ways: calmly, urgently, sadly, happily, indifferently and with deep concern. Nothing. Or rather, everything.
Elise thought she saw it in various places throughout the house (that made us suspect her). May insisted she hadn’t done anything (which made us suspect her). Ezra got tired of us asking the question and confessed (which made us conclude it was him), but then his story wouldn’t hold (which made us suspect him). Each one carried shades of unshakable guilt. Linda and I, too, felt pangs of guilt. Maybe they hadn’t broken it. Maybe they were all telling the truth. The inquisition ended in failure.
We phoned the manufacturers and asked them to ship a new Jesus. They could make no guarantees, but we hoped that his arrival might happen before Christmas Day.
In the meantime, the headless Jesus was too much to look at, so my wife crazy-glued the head of a Lego person on his shoulders. The sunglassed eyes of the Lego head looked far too smug to sit on Christ's shoulders, and the head would accept different hats or helmets, all of which seemed blasphemous, but it was much better than a headless baby.
Many years earlier, Linda and I had travelled to Rome, to the Sistine Chapel, to see Michelangelo’s frescoes. I remember staring up at the roof, considering, with the rest of the ruck, the space between God’s and Adam’s hands. What could the space mean? What was Michelangelo’s thought? I think the space was a practical consideration. If the two hands had touched, things would have become weird – Michelangelo’s deity might not have stayed put.
The new Jesus arrived in a small box a few days before Christmas. Was this the Advent or the Second Coming? Once out of the packaging, he was more popular than ever. Despite our sternest warnings, he consorted regularly with all toys, regardless of their shape and size, regardless of where they were made. He obviously wasn’t going to stay in the manger, though the picture on the box suggested this might happen.
It's time to set up our nativity scene again. I arrange the figurines on the coffee table, according to the picture on the box. As I lay Christ into his moulded manger, I realize he won't be here long. Within minutes, the last place I'll find him is in the manger. For in our house, God can be touched, so there's no telling where he might end up.
Bill Bunn lives in Calgary.
Jane Gadd, the Facts & Arguments editor from 2012 to 2016, suggested John Beattie’s gem from 2015. It captures the awkwardness of the annual family gathering with humour and kindness.
The druncle: With his Crown Royal and wild stories, Uncle Jim made Christmas dangerous and fun, John Beattie writes
Is it the toddy, the tree or the tinsel?
Maybe all those things get me thinking about my Uncle Jim.
Most families have one of THOSE uncles. Hollywood called theirs Uncle Buck. You've watched their name curdle in a polite aunt's mouth.
Our Uncle Jim's visits would start with a knock at the door.
Then, "Jesus H. Christ it's cold!"
He'd step in with his trademark giggle. "Merry Christmas, you little s.o.b.'s!"
Christmas was about to get dangerous, and we gleefully embraced the family version of nitroglycerin.
My brother, Peter, my sister, Bonnie, and I would sit wide-eyed beside Uncle Jim as he poured the Crown Royal he swore to give up when he turned as purple as the bag. We’d hang on his every word because there was a real chance that whatever he said he might never say again.
Mom would retreat to her in-home beauty salon, nerves tight as a hair curler, struggling to explain the dilemma of loud, difficult relations to her clientele.
“You’re out of luck,” Jim would deadpan. “I ran over Santa. Reindeer guts all over the road.”
And then, with an amber knuckle-lock on his unfiltered Sportsman cigarette, he'd cough and wheeze at his own joke.
We'd respond with that uncomfortable church-pew laugh, the kind that turns your back on damnation. So many truths and rumours came to stay when Uncle Jim did.
He was the black sheep from my mother's flock. Much of his story was shrouded in secrecy. We knew Jim's mother loved him. We knew our mother loved him. We knew Jim and our grandfather rarely spoke.
Jim grew up on a hardscrabble farm in Mountain Grove, Ont., amid a battalion of brothers and sisters trying to claw their way out of poverty. He was a tough kid who could take a beating.
We knew that Jim accidentally shot his brother in the leg and his sisters lied to keep it from the rest of the family.
Jim was good around cars – maybe even the one they found him in with his face stomped into the floorboards by someone’s boyfriend (or was it husband?).
The doctors didn't think he'd make it, but when he did, Jim kept his story to himself.
He went west and somehow became a mechanic fixing those monster machines that keep the British Columbia logging business buzzing. He'd live in the bush and then come out to party until the money ran out.
But Christmas was about family.
When Jim got too loud, my mother would race out of her salon to scold him, but he had a bomb squad's sense of timing.
"Are you done for the day? It would be so nice to catch up."
She'd melt and turn tail.
"Jesus H. Christ," he'd whisper.
"That was close." And we'd all erupt with laughter.
Everything was always close with Uncle Jim.
“You hungry? Here, take this.” And from his pockets he’d drag out at least $40 in quarters.
"Go get some chips. Your mother's going to be working on those ugly s.o.b.'s for hours." Folks like Jim didn't shop. Years later we'd wonder if he robbed vending machines, but at that moment he was the family pirate who brought home Christmas treasure.
One Christmas morning we found him out cold on the couch beside the tree. We were certain his death would ruin the day until four-year-old Peter insisted on poking the body because it was in the way. And like a holiday miracle, the corpse twitched.
"Gentle Jesus Christ. Go the hell back to bed and leave me alone."
Peter, who stuttered, would have none of it: He needed help with his electric train.
"W-wake, wake up," he said, staring down Jim's bloodshot eyes.
“Pah!” said Jim, waving one of his big mitts like he was swatting away a blackfly.
"You-you, you're sup-supposed to be a god-goddamn mechanic, aren't you?" Peter asked.
Uncle Jim's craggy face shattered like a rock slide. He coughed, laughed and built that train. Jim always came through at Christmas.
But one year he quit coming at all. Those coughs got worse and, true to his word, he gave up his Crown Royal.
Mom went out to the Queen Charlotte Islands (as they were called then) to see him one last time. Jim had never married – at least not that he told us. He died alone, but not without a family. We were his family and memories of Jim creep into my mind each Christmas.
It’s been said that some people have but one purpose – to serve as a bad example. Some people probably said that about Jim, but we never did.
If the holidays are a time for saints, not sinners, deep down I always felt you could find a bit of both in Uncle Jim. He spent most of his life in the cathedral of a northern forest and I suppose you can't get much closer to God than that.
Mind you, that would be a God who laughs when he hears an old black sheep shout out "Merry Christmas, you little s.o.b.'s" and washes it down with a shot of whisky.
So God rest, you merry gentleman. And Merry Christmas to all the Uncle Jims, wherever you are.
John Beattie lives in Toronto.
Current First Person editor Catherine Dawson March loved Dr. Paula Williams’s 2016 piece about the generosity of her patients. This year, she’s already received mojito-flavoured body foam, a pen on a sparkly string and 300 Ethiopian sugar cookies in a carrier bag.
Oh! You shouldn’t have: The generosity of Dr. Paula Williams’s patients knows no bounds but it does cross more than a few boundaries
My medical office can look like Harrod’s Food Hall with small areas carved out for patient care at Christmastime. By the end of November it is bleak, we are down to our last box of chocolate biscuits to remind us of last year’s haul. But my beloved patients are already starting to drift in with good-hearted offerings – edible, homemade, plucked from dollar-store shelves and downright unforgettable.
I will receive many scarves. Some are tenderly crafted from scraps of that plastic wool they make from recycled garbage bags. Others are elegant: a pashmina, the same pashmina and another lovely pashmina almost the same as the other pashminas. Plus the most exquisite hand-knit creation from an HIV sufferer, laced and studded with hundreds of tiny pearl beads appliquéd by hand. Patients crochet huge afghans for my cozy nest in front of the TV at home. They know I’ll be muttering about the cold soon, they crochet socks and slippers and a tiny purple jacket for my iPhone.
And they scrutinize. I did not know I needed an Ahh Bra. Or five pairs of knickers. Or hair conditioner. Or a different polyester blouse, always a discomfiting shade of purple and saturated with cigarette smoke, every year for five or six years.
I have had to learn how to check out lottery tickets (always offered singly). And I’ve opened some suspicious items of jewellery that may have fallen off the back of a truck. There are tips, too: A garrulous Irish grandma tucks a $20 bill into my lingerie before I can jump away and $10 is slipped into a pocket (thanks for the Viagra sample, the wife says).
Stop, I protest! I can’t take money! Our doctor guidelines tell us to accept small presents graciously. But there are challenges.
A large burly patient approaches the reception desk. He has a question for my trusty staff. “Does the doctor have a pierced belly button?” They don’t know but they suspect not. He leaves, promising to rush right back. It is presented, in Christmas colours: a red-and-green-flashing stick-on belly-button light! I’m touched, as this family has already gone all out and given me a bobble-head dancing doll and two cartons of fruit juice.
What do doctors like for Christmas? If you’re an elderly Chinese lady who speaks little English, you take the advice of your pharmacist. She arrives, smiling and bent under the weight of two supersize bottles of booze. I don’t drink, but never mind. I recall her first visit, how she crouched in the corner of the office on the floor, reliving the Japanese invasion of Shanghai after I had made a delicate inquiry about her early life.
Another year, she brings me a large box of pears. A fine and touching memory.
One year I was able to line up half a dozen bottles of Baileys Irish Cream in order of size and redistribute them to the next series of selected patients. There are some gooey liquids that even my family won’t drink, but they fall upon the chocolates and cookies, the Austrian cocoa-covered almonds, the Quality Street, the Turtles and the gift baskets, which all the staff share.
There is a lady who drags herself across town every year to bring me a new pillow or mattress cover. A psychiatric patient with a filthy temper who makes a special annual trip to the craft show for one delicate Christmas tree ornament. A lonely man gives me a treasured book, a history of the British army in Turkey during the First World War. Amateur paintings are produced, “I have 400 more at home, doctor.” And a beaded tapestry made by a South American reformed drug smuggler hangs on our wall. Then there are the bringers of the Annual Very Large Poinsettia.
There was the season of many sequined elephants – as a patient could not control her online shopping – and heaps of sweets that diabetics have bought, then felt too guilty to keep.
Diabetics can be naughty.
“Are those by any chance chocolate bars sticking out of the pockets of your cargo pants?” I ask.
“Oh yes, but I brought them for you, doc!”
There are tiny gifts, too. A smooth pebble. A coupon for a free hamburger. A muffin. Greek pastries. Halloween candy (the molasses kisses that nobody likes). Lots of Timbits. A ballpoint pen. Home-recorded Indian veena music, installed on my computer by the veena virtuoso so I can listen any time. A crystal frog and then a crystal owl to join him. An aloe vera plant, fridge magnets, homemade Italian biscotti (given in perpetual gratitude for a house call I made one Christmas Eve) – presents that demand to be opened in front of the proud giver, and others that my staff and I can take home to share.
I always ask patients about their Christmas plans, so I know if they have anybody to celebrate with or are planning to be brave and lonely. Patients of every religion and culture are welcome in my practice. The newcomers to Canada assure me that Christmas is for everybody, it’s their favourite holiday, they will do the Christmas things, they will be happy and celebrate on a higher plane – what a gift! It is heartwarming to see Canadians sharing their traditions, and newcomers cruising the stores for chocolate biscuits, making every gift special and heartfelt … every pebble, every Timbit.
Dr. Paula Williams lives in Toronto.