We’re late with everything at House of Nagy this year — as always — but we finally got around to putting up some Christmas decorations over the weekend. The tree, bundled for a week on our front porch like a stuffed grape leaf, finally found its stand Friday night and unfurled its branches. Saturday morning we opened our humble box of interior decorations and I discovered something marvelous: We have no fewer than seven Nativity sets.
There’s the Playmobil crèche that belongs to our 4-year-old. That’s been out a few days, scattered across the coffee table the same as if it were blocks or a puzzle or the dinosaur-and-landscape set he got last Christmas. There’s a matryoshka nativity that “belongs” to one of the other kids, and a whole bunch of others made of wood, crystal, ceramics and whatnot.
The Great Nativity Question, in any conscientious Catholic household, is whether baby Jesus takes up his position in the stable with the rest of the figurines or stays in the box until 12:01 on Christmas morning. (Or, if you have a barnful of kids like I do, until sometime shortly after you come home from the 4:30 vigil Mass and the celebrations have officially begun.)
Now, I’ve met Catholics who seem to consider this a litmus test of true faith. Commandment 11: Thou Shalt Not Put Baby Jesus In The Manger Until Christmas. Advent, they rightly point out, is about waiting. Nativity purity is practically the eighth sacrament, and early placement of the Christchild is grounds for an eleventh-hour Advent confession.
My wife is one of these. As I write, she reminds me of last year’s tender-and-sweet procession of children who marched around our house on Christmas Eve depositing newborns into hay-lined feed troughs while we sang “Away in a Manger.”
So I’m not treading lightly onto the thin ice but galloping out in a coach-and-four when I begin to tease. There are Joseph and Mary huddling over the empty manger. The shepherds have arrived, ready to shout “Surprise!” when the guest of honor arrives. The animals are clearly confused, wondering what the humans are up to now. I like to position the ox so he’s staring at Joseph, trying to make eye contact. “Hey, if you’re not going to eat that….”
Alicia deserves papal recognition as a Defender of the Faith for putting up with a scoffing heretic like me. Thanks to her, even the wise men don’t show up at our house until the twelfth day, putting in their brief cameo before they go back in the box. But I have to say that I savored J.F. Powers’ 1962 novel Morte D’Urban, not least for the chapter in which Fathers Urban and Wilf duel over the Bambino in the crib while Urban plays checkers with the conflict-averse Father Jack.
Like Father Urban, I’ve learned to keep some comments to myself. Unlike him, I lost the checkers match long ago, conceding defeat to this form of domestic piety.
That doesn’t mean I don’t have questions. After all, where is the Adorable Infant if not nestled warmly in his bed of straw? Waiting for a bus? Cashing out at the inn bar? Gone with Jared on a Subway run?
So here’s my Letterman-style Top 10 list of What Baby Jesus Could Be Doing Since He Isn’t Lying in Our Manger:
#10: Arguing with nurses for a better Apgar score
#9: Stuck in the Atlantic Time Zone
#8: Impersonating elves at Santa’s workshop
#7: Still in makeup
#6: Copyediting the “Nice” list
#5: Comparing notes with John the Baptist
#4: Shoveling snow.
#3: Armwrestling with our broken Nutcracker
#2: Slinging burritos at the Bethlehem Chipotle
#1: (From my beloved saintly wife) In our hearts. That’s where.
Isn’t it just like the Christmas season to bring us all together?
John Nagy is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.