John Semley’s most recent book is Hater: On the Virtues of Utter Disagreeability.
In the wake of my grandmother’s passing about a year ago, and the cumbersome business of sorting through the bric-a-brac of an individual’s life, estate and personal effects, I found two material possessions earmarked for my inheritance.
The first was a set of “good silverware,” because my father’s mother was very much a “good silverware” type – the sort of person who stood on ceremony, and for whom dedicated collections of serving utensils were a point of pride; the sort who might flip over a plate and remark, not uncritically, upon the manufacturer’s name embossed on the underside. Sadly this especially “good” set of knives and forks, for which I possess even less use than does my dearly departed grandmother, has, per her wishes, been stored in a basement until such a time as I tie the knot. And as a man whose romantic partnership remains as yet uncertified by the courts, they remain as yet unused. Alas.
The second and somewhat curiouser item was an old-school nativity scene, bequeathed to me as directed by a plain sticker: “I hope John will use this set in HIS home.” I call this item curious not just because of the odd stressing on the word HIS (as if I’d think to install it in a stranger’s home), or because a set of figurines representing the birth of Jesus of Nazareth strikes me as an odd thing to hand down to someone, but because it was well-known in my family that I possessed no particular belief in God Almighty, or the redemptive love of the Lord Jesus Christ. For me, Jesus’s birth has long been regarded purely a historical event, albeit a significant one, like the Battle of Waterloo. Sure, it reshaped the course of human history, but would I install a diorama in my apartment commemorating the conflict that marked Napoleon’s fatal downfall? Not likely.
I’m fairly certain my late grandmother, herself a member of the highly liberalized United Church of Canada, was aware of my beliefs, or lack thereof. And my parents certainly were, which is why they asked me if I even had any interest in receiving the gift. An atheist arranging delicate figurines of Baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, Melchior, Balthazar and the boys makes about as much intuitive sense as an observant Catholic thoughtfully lighting a menorah. So it shocked them somewhat that I enthusiastically accepted.
Like any other atheist who abhors shopping malls, and for whom the ideal present is an utterly thoughtless gift card, Christmas snares me in a weird holiday double-bind. Both the religious and secular aspects of holiday are entirely unappealing, and even vaguely offensive.
Yet this hand-me-down nativity scene, of all things, provides a new path, a kind of holiday-season “third way.” And it’s not because I’m drawing together the season’s secular and sacred strands in some particularly cute or novel fashion. It’s because this particular object – little more than some chintzily painted mid-20th-century china – meant something to my grandmother and my family, and so means something to me. It’s not merely one of countless iterations of seasonally opportune tableaux depicting the birth of the baby Jesus; it feels deeply, meaningfully personal. And it’s a nice way to memorialize my grandmother, whom I loved a lot, in part because she was the kind of prim-and-proper product of an older generation who wills silverware and nativity sets.
As I move out of the pinched crankiness of my 20s – a time in which grousing about the holidays and its sundry superficialities feels entirely permissible – and well into my 30s, where such an attitude hardens into its own set of tired clichés, I feel compelled to make the holidays matter. Traditions have to begin somewhere. And it’s sort of thrilling to know that even those affronted by the differently unappealing conventions that dog the holiday season – too-thick egg nog, dry cookies, the ambient pressure to seem cheery – also have the opportunity to create their own.
To take just a recent example: A short time ago, I had the opportunity to show National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – a long-time holiday season standby in my own family’s VHS collection – to my partner who, I was shocked to learn, had never seen it. But my initial indignation at this glaring Christmas-movie blind spot turned out edifying. After all, her family has their own assemblage of holiday traditions, which, for some reason I’m still trying to figure out, did not include the ritual viewing of a movie in which Randy Quaid empties a overflowing portable toilet into a residential sewer.
This meant that my own personal, familial Christmas traditions weren’t just iterations of some monolithic network of meaning signified by some intimidating idea of The Holidays. There is no one way to mark the holidays, calcified under the weight of stereotype: There are many, many ways, and as a consequence, many chances to make new traditions, to resist – or, heck, even embrace – clichés.
Any regular viewer of the above-mentioned Christmas Vacation is likely to remember the ending, when Chevy Chase’s psychotic suburban dad, previously hellbent on wrenching the most Rockwellian Christmas conceivable, recognizes the error of his ways. “It’s the Christmas star,” he tells his family. “And that’s all that matters tonight. Not bonuses or gifts or turkeys or trees. See, kids… It means something different to everybody. Now I know what it means to me.”
It’s a pithy bit of sentiment from what is essentially a slapstick comedy, granted. But in a season that sets the benchmark for pithy bits of sentiment, something about it sticks. Secular, religious, atheist, unhinged family man, anything in between: We all have our reasons for celebrating the holiday season. And even if we don’t, then we can will those reasons into being, and mark them however the hell we please. Even choosing to not mark them, after all, constitutes a form of quasi-sacramental, inverse-ritual.
In my case, these choices manifest in cobbling together a holiday song playlist that mothballs hoary standards such as Frosty the Snowman and Feliz Navidad in favour of German psych-rock band Can’s Little Star of Bethlehem and Clarence Carter’s bluesy and highly suggestive Back Door Santa. Or maybe it’s my (almost) annual tradition of sitting around with friends, slugging a bottle of medium-shelf Canadian rye, and playing increasingly demented rounds of the party game Quiplash. Maybe it’s using the time off work to tuck into an especially intimidating novel. Maybe I actually will build a little diorama of Napoleon getting creamed by the Duke of Wellington and Prussian general Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher, as a monument to my own desire to wrest control of my Christmas season away from trite platitudes and well-worn systems of signs and symbols that define it.
Or maybe it makes just as much sense to embrace some of those symbols, on my own terms. This is why I look forward to embracing this vintage nativity scene. It’s not a statement of my belief in the redemptive love of Christ. Or even some sort of ironic rebuke of that belief, as in the egregious “hipster nativity scenes” that feature a selfie-snapping Joseph and three kings delivering Amazon boxes to the newborn king.
It’s a simple, sort-of-chintzy reminder of my grandmother, and her traditions. It’s a way not of strengthening, but easing the bonds of family, of convention, of sheer obligation that tend to tug a little tighter around the holidays. It is, to borrow my late grandmother’s stylization, MINE.