My mom would tie a garland of plastic holly to the stair railing and pull out a ball of fake mistletoe that she’d have Dad hang from the ceiling light in the hallway. We’d plug in plastic molded candelabras with orange bulbs and place them in the sunroom windows.
We’d drive into town and pick out a tree from the Methodist Church lot set up on Main Street and haul it home, where Dad sawed off the trunk and screwed on the metal base. The rest of us would be sorting through boxes, checking the over-sized string of lights dating from the 1960s, screwing in bulbs to find the one that wasn’t working, replacing them, slowly, while Dad manhandled the tree into the corner and turned it around to find the most presentable angle. Finally, after disagreements and a fair amount of adult swearing, he advised us how to best weave and clip the lights onto the tree before we could begin decorating with a mixture of homemade and store-bought ornaments. We finished it off while Dad slumped on the sofa, directing the ideal placement of each strand of icicle that we draped over the branches for shimmer.
During the Christmas season, my brother and I would watch the TV guide and figure out when we would grab pillows and flop on the floor to watch the stop-motion Rudolf and animated Frosty specials on TV. We made lists and hung stockings, and I sustained such elevated excitement in anticipation of Christmas morning gifts, I sometimes felt like my head would pop off like a Barbie doll’s. Mom and Dad saved—and borrowed—in order to lavish us with gifts, which they piled under the tree each year. Santa brought a “big” gift each year, like a bicycle or an aquarium. The rest of the items weren’t necessarily extravagant in and of themselves, but the sheer quantity astounded us.
In the midst of our secular décor and activity, Mom would pull out a sturdy brown cardboard box from the storage closet and carry it carefully downstairs. Wrapped in double layers of tissue paper and nestled into soft packing material lay the delicate pieces of our family Nativity set.
Inherited from my grandmother, this collection was set off to the side, away from the hubbub. We were allowed to set it up, but after that we were never to play with it, as it was old and precious and a little rickety. That alone gave it an air of holiness.
Mom would let my brother and me take turns placing the characters in the stable. We sometimes switched things up and put the manger in the bigger area on the right, but usually Jesus seemed to best fit in the alcove, with Mary close by and slightly to the left, so she could gaze down at the baby while clutching her hands to her breast, heart swelling with adoration. We pondered the best arrangement of animals and organized the wise men carefully so that they leaned and tilted their heads in the right direction.
At some point, we imported a camel from another, lower quality set. And a sheep lost its ear that we super-glued back in place. Other than that, the scene stayed more or less the same.
As we grew older, my brother lost interest, and the job of arranging the scene fell mainly to me. I happened to be growing more and more interested in spiritual things at that time, and the holy seemed holier; the scene from Bethlehem, more precious than ever.
One day, I gave my life to Christ and the set took on a deeply personal meaning. That one symbol of my Savior in our otherwise secular celebration was a place where I could pause and be reminded of Emmanuel, God with us.
In high school, one of my friends gave me a gift, a porcelain clown playing a wind instrument something like a soprano sax, recorder, or clarinet. She thought of me, she said, because I played clarinet in band. I thanked her and brought it home to show my parents before heading off to do homework. A few days later, the clown disappeared.
I found it.
Tucked in the shadows, staying respectfully at a distance back by the donkey, stood the diminutive clown playing his mournful little tune.
The person who placed the clown amongst the animals meant it as a funny, if irreverent, joke. But my heart fell. The only sacred space set aside in the Christmas season had been invaded by a clown.
My mom, sensing my disappointment—or perhaps herself disturbed—plucked the figurine from the scene and placed him above, on a shelf, to allow the jokester some fun while maintaining a sense of dignity for the Holy Family. When we put away the set that year, we debated what to do about the clown. I guess we wrapped him up and tucked him into the box. At any rate, the next year he returned, secretly added to the barn after the other characters settled into their places.
Year after year, the clown continued to appear in or around my parents’ Nativity scene, as much a tradition as the standard-issued parts. My college boyfriend suggested the clown serve as a symbol of how we are fools for Christ, and after that I found myself more comfortable with the clown’s presence.
Still later, years later, my sister-in-law recommended I read Clowning in Rome, by Henri Nouwen. In it, he explains:
Clowns are not in the center of the events. They appear between the great acts, fumble and fall, and make us smile again after the tensions created by the heroes we came to admire. The clowns don’t have it together, they do not succeed in what they try to do, they are awkward, out of balance, and left-handed, but…they are on our side. We respond to them not with admiration, but with sympathy, not with amazement but with understanding, not with tension but with a smile. Of the virtuosi we say, “How can they do it?” Of the clowns we say, “They are like us.” The clowns remind us with a tear and a smile that we share the same human weaknesses. (3)
Suddenly, that perspective offered meaning to this annual visitor. It seemed good to have a clown near the Savior…even to be a clown near the Savior, associated with the King of kings while remaining real and humble, even awkward.
The Lord didn’t come for those who were healthy, but for the sick; he didn’t come for the righteous, but for sinners. He came for the lame, the weak, the lowly. He came for the awkward, out-of-balance people who don’t have it together.
He came for the clowns.
And so I still find solace in that vintage manger scene, the Nativity with all the expected elements, and that one unexpected clown tucked in the corner, reminding me of my humanity…reminding me of my need for a Savior.
Nouwen, Henri. Clowning in Rome. New York: Doubleday, 1979, 2000. Print.
Image credits: All photos by Ann Kroeker. All rights reserved.
Connie@raise your eyes says
Ah, Nouwen had such a gift of insight…love his writings. What a beautiful Nativity set. So dear how the clown found a place in your tradition.
We pretend not to know who secretly places the clown into the scene, but believe it or not, it’s my dad who’s been doing it all these years–the same dad who would get frustrated with the tree and swear and then tell us how to properly hang the ornaments. He can be silly as well as grumpy…you just never know when.
When we visit them at Christmas, we always admire the decorations, so nostalgic for me, knowing that many of them date back to my childhood. And then I always peek at the Nativity to see if the clown made it.
Diana Trautwein says
Ann, I LOVE this story and the beautiful way in which you’ve told it.’Fools for Christ’ is right on target and I kinda like that clown standing in the wings over there. It’s where I imagine myself to be in most any nativity scene I see. Continued good Advent to you…
Diana, maybe we should go to the party store and buy big red foam noses or those crazy orange wigs?
Wonderfulness here. May the clown always make it.
Lynn Hopper says
I wasn’t sure if I would do any decorating this year, but now I guess I have to! (I would have gotten the Nativity set out anyway.) But I need to point out the Christmas tree came from the METHODIST lot in town…
How about we take care of the Nativity set this year, the kids and I, when we come out to see you? We can dig it out of the closet and set it up.
Don’t worry about the rest. Not at all. As the story supports, the Nativity mattered most, even though you blew me away with the mountain of gifts under the tree all those years!
Thank you for that.
Oh, and I’ll update the post to reflect the accurate Christmas tree lot! 🙂
Patricia @ Pollywog Creek says
Ann…this is simply wonderful. “Fools for Christ” indeed. Your story is so beautifully written.
My parents passed on over ten years ago and I have their nativity set in my home. It sounds much like the one in your story. Last year I finally decided to touch up the cracks and glued-together places with a little paint. Having that humble set in my home is a blessing to me.
I’m in no hurry to inherit this beautiful set–I want Mom and Dad to enjoy it for years to come! We have our own even more humble set. The piece that is supposed to represent the stable got cracked when we took it with us on a Christmas trip. But, that, too, is appropriate.
Ann! So much to love here! I just interviewed a local resident who is a professional clown, and as soon as I finish typing this comment I’m going to send him this link. He and I talked about the fear some people have of clowns (myself included). We had a long conversation very much along the lines of Nouwen’s thinking. They are everyman–they are like us.
And…I’m so glad that your dad who swore while putting up the tree also hid the clown. I could see my dad struggling the same way, wrestling to get the tree to stand up straight in the holder. And yet, my dad was the kind of guy who also would have hidden the clown.
And those bulbs! I was just thinking about those vintage 1960s bulbs and the way we had to check each one. Good times, good times. Thanks so much for this. A great way to start my morning.
I actually know a professional clown, too! I should make sure she reads this.
Those bulbs–you know, I had trouble finding an image to link to, but finally found this: http://www.christmas-light-source.com/C7-Bulbs-Opaque-Green_p_1137.html
And our family added bubble lights, eventually, to. I guess those aren’t so vintage: http://www.google.com/products/catalog?q=vintage+bubble+lights&oe=utf-8&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&um=1&ie=UTF-8&tbm=shop&cid=12029362349685695940&sa=X&ei=PaTnTty3OqH1sQKTxImaCQ&ved=0CHoQ8wIwAA
Ahh….bubble lights! BTW, now that I know both you and my friend Sally played clarinet in high school, I think the two of you should get together and play a duet. You could always wear clown wigs!
Megan Willome says
Ann, this is priceless. And you know, don’t you, that in literature, the clown is the wise man. The fool, the jester, is the voice of truth. That, my friend, is you.
Clown: Ah, Megan, you have piqued my curiosity! The fool as the voice of truth? I like that. Maybe I should rethink my “brand,” switching from:
ann kroeker. writer.
ann kroeker. clown.
I can see the clown who hides behind a mask and covers his tears to make others laugh. Jesus came for these. We are these. Ann, this was good, better than good, an epiphany. Thank you & Merry Merry Christmas.
Yes…I can see it, too, Doug. Thank you for stopping by to leave these words.
Monica Sharman says
Ann, thank you so much for this. I’m a fool and a clown here—and without grace, all would be disaster for me!
Ah, Monica, yes. I feel it, too.
Hazel I. Moon says
I’ve known a lot of friends who though they were clowns, and they loved Jesus too. Funny how we think something is out of place, but then it seems to take on new meaning and we welcome it after that.
I love how you put that, Hazel, how we think something is out of place, then it takes on new meaning and we welcome it. Yes. That’s it.
David Rupert says
I really loved this story.
Even clowns worship Jesus (in the end, anyway.)
I was voted the Class Clown. My mother was NOT happy. And the jokester in me kept me for many years from dealing with my own sin. It was always a big joke.
Now, this clown, worships at the manger
You’ll probably be shocked to learn this, David, but I was voted class clown too. 😉
Hey, you two, guess what? I was voted class clown, too!
David, your admission carries with it a sweet story of your eventual transformation, sending the clown to his knee.
Love to my fellow clowns!
I suppose this would be the right place to admit I was class clown too. =) I wonder how many of us there are? Totally expressive in our actions as teenagers, funny, witty, quick on the draw… and now honed into expressive writers. Hmmm. Ann this is so beautiful. The story is so rich and blesses me deeply, and humbles me at the manger and the cross. All are welcome, even the clowns. Thank you Ann.
Charity Singleton says
Oh Ann, this is a wonderful story of finding redemption in unexpected places, and finding the Gospel to be the exact good news we need when we are standing to the side, a clown in our own right.
“Redemption in unexpected places.” Won’t my dad be surprised to hear that his silly little joke has taken on this deep, rich meaning?
Beautiful. I love this post. There’s room for this uncertain and fumbling clown, even in the presence of a holy God–especially One who was willing to become humble and frail (like me.)
Queenie, thank you for bringing it around like that. So beautifully stated, how the uncertain, fumbling clown in the presence of the holy God who became humble and frail in that manger.
This is my favorite post so far. My mother loves nativity sets, and while growing up we had one that appeared yearly form some unknown location (she had two boys, it was best hidden away). Now that I am fulfilling my promise to my father to look after her until her death, I find myself buying mom a small, but very special, nativity set to add to her collection. Thank you for this post.
Thank *you* so much. I love hearing about your sweet story of attentive care. I hope you find a beautiful, meaningful nativity set…or maybe one that has a bit of a surprise. 🙂
This is also my favorite post of yours so far. The truth, the humanity. Love it.
Wow, Sarah. Thank you. Thank you. I’m humbled…feeling even more like the fumbling clown.
Oh Ann, this is just beautiful. Thank you for sharing. Our nativity scene always manages to get some superhero or strange fantasy creature made of plastic inserted into the action before Christmas day arrives. I have always thought it was just and appropriate that they be exposed to the truth of Jesus! 😉
Kimberlee Conway Ireton says
Ann, your story here brought back memories of my aunt, whose favorite song was “Send in the Clowns.” She played it on our piano whenever she came to visit. I always thought it was such a sad song and couldn’t understand why she loved it so much.
You’ve given me a glimpse of what she might have loved about it, the very humanness of clowns, how they bumble and fumble and forget their cues, just like us. Thank you.