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.