This Tuesday night, Christmas Eve, my daughter will be home from college and the two of us will be in the community room beneath the sanctuary of the United Church of Lincoln. There are three services, but the first one – the 7 p.m. service – is the one with a nativity. So, the two of us will be among the grownups helping to transform a couple dozen kids into angels, sheep, wise men, and a pair of seriously sleep-deprived parents. I am no expert on stable births, but it can’t be easy. There was no midwife. There was no iPod dock with mom and dad’s carefully selected “Time-To-Give-Birth” playlist. There was no one offering an epidural.
My sense is that by the time the baby was born, Mary was in serious need of sleep while Joseph was craving an I.V. drip filled with Red Bull. After all, the two of them were suddenly expected to entertain the rich and the poor who had come to meet their little newborn, and drop off a bunch of presents since at least three of the guests had missed the baby shower. (You try and get to a baby shower on time when your Garmin is a star.)
Outfitting the kids at the United Church of Lincoln is incredibly easy. Like a lot of churches, we have more trunks of vaguely biblical-looking costumes than the touring company of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” We have more beards than the 2013 World Champion Red Sox. And, of course, we have wings, because you can’t make an angel without wings.
Also, our nativity is pretty casual. You want in, you show up around 6:30 on Christmas Eve and choose human or animal. It was a pretty crowded stable, so it doesn’t matter to us if the front of the church looks like an elementary school mosh pit. And it is never quite the same nativity. Although we hold fast to the basics of the story, there is always a fair amount of ad-libbing, and sometimes we have unexpected cameos: Radio announcers. Santa Claus. Pretend TV personalities. It is without question my favorite moment of the year in the church.
There are a variety of reasons for this. I have now seen a quarter century’s worth of children pass through our faux Bethlehem. Some of the kids who were angels 20 or 25 years ago now have children of their own clamoring for one of the white robes and halos. (In addition to wings, you can’t really be an angel without a gold tinsel halo.) It seems only yesterday that my daughter was a five-year-old with fleece ears or a seven-year-old with what these days we would call a Duck Dynasty beard. One year she was Mary. When you’re a little girl, getting to play Mary is sort of like getting to play Juliet or Fantine or (Dare I say it?) Katniss Everdeen. It’s a terrific role, but a lot of pressure.
And I love the way the service ends with our dimming the sanctuary lights and singing “Silent Night,” the church lit only by candles. Arguably, mixing a few dozen little kids in costumes and lit candles is a recipe for disaster, but Christmas – Christianity itself – is all about faith. Usually Mary holds the Christ candle, from which the rest of our candles are lit. Most days of the year I have the emotional depth of a mollusk, but when we are raising and lowering our candles on Christmas Eve, I am always deeply moved.
I understand why so many churches have nativities: It’s not simply the miracle of the story. It’s not only a recreation of a moment from the gospels. It’s the timelessness of the tradition. The annual reenactment occurs at the same time, the same place, and with the same characters. It’s a ritual that is at once unchanging and yet never identical, linking parents and children and locking the moment in memory.
And now, once more, we can count down the hours.
(The column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on December 22, 2013. Chris’s most recent novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” was published in July.)