I’m celebrating Christmas with eight Jews, a bevy of relatives and in-laws, most with a quiet if frank hostility to Jesus at any stage of life, newborn to resurrected. Machetunim: the Yiddish word for what we are: in-laws, relatives of relatives, our company consisting of my daughter Laura and her husband, Jake, and his parents and his sister and their aged aunt and younger uncle—all Jewish, but, I’m pretty sure awaiting no Messiah, worshipping no God of Abraham or anybody else—and my Jewish, atheist husband, less enamored of any deity than all of them together, and I, the token Christian, brought to you tonight by those wonderful folks who gave us the Inquisition, Rick Santorum, and the Holocaust, all of which I may well be called upon to answer for before the night is over. Now, here in my daughter’s apartment, on this nascent holy night, we will have renegade priests and their evil doings for the main course, and ill-taught Republicans and surly martyrs skewered for dessert.
My daughter Laura holds no brief for Jesus, but loving me, has returned from an economic aid summit in Somalia with a handmade crèche, displayed now on the coffee table, given pride of place among the books and coasters, looking oddly like it might belong, though on the walls no stars of David overhang the stable. These are not my husband’s Jews with lox and blintzes, latke feasts at shrines of ethnic culture, Hebrew tchotchkes. The religious symbols here consist of sheaves of paper covered in statistical analyses of poverty in places most folks do not trouble their pretty heads about. To be a Jew in this family is to be brilliant and accomplished, and to use every well-schooled neuron in the service of impoverished need.
I feel so outweighed in this crowd, not even a contestant. The four thirty-somethings here tonight do substantive good in the world. People in countries I couldn’t find on a map will eat tonight and drink clean water because of what they do. These families have dispensed with god-generations since. Jake’s grandmother tells me every time we meet that she believes in prayer, just not in God. My daughter’s mother-in-law tells her she must teach her not-yet-born children to live lives of doubt, disabuse them early of naiveté if they are to be of any use at all. To be of use: the good.
What do you do to justify your days? they do not ask me, but they should. The question hangs in the air at every gathering. Even Jake’s ancient aunt who sits here tonight in some profound oblivion has no doubt rocked the world in her day.
I look more closely at the crèche. It is lovely, made of twigs and straw, I think, and twine. No evidence of glue. The brand-new mother and the shepherds fashioned with precision, a scowl it seems on Joseph’s face, one cow looking pregnant or heavy-bellied anyway. And every figure, every object, the manger, the stall walls, are all blackened at the edges, as though they have been burnt around the miniature border of each form. This black outline on each straw-colored piece adds definition and precision of some beauty.
“Dammit, Laura!” Jake’s words are loud enough to send us all scurrying into the kitchen, “My God, Laura.”
The room is smoky-greasy smelling, hazy-aired.
“I tipped the lamb pan in the oven. The grease spilled. But everything’s okay,” Laura says.
“It’s not okay at all. It’s monstrous.” Jake waves a kitchen towel as though he’s cooling it. “It’s a bloody mess, a stupid idiotic thing to do.”
What a bloody, stupid, idiotic, monstrous man my daughter’s husband is. I strip-mine his rant for adjectives. I cannot bear him. Christ was born this night as a baby in the manger and he died to save me from my sins and make me holy and I stand here in this blue-smoked kitchen Christmas Eve, and wish my son-in-law were dead. I always feel this little jolt whenever Laura calls to tell me he is safely back from Soweto or Rwanda. I’m a soul saved by costly grace whose deepest heart desire is that her daughter may be widowed.
The mother machetunim grabs an apron emblazoned with the words: So I’m to do it all then? and gets down on her knees with a wet dish towel and begins to scrub the greasy oven floor.
“Don’t Sophie,” her husband says. “Don’t be a fool. It’s still hot. You’ll sear your flesh.”
I walk into the dining room. Jake’s sister follows me.
“It’s not Jake’s fault,” she says.
“She’s my daughter,” I say. “It’s my daughter he’s yelling at. She tilted the stupid pan.”
Jake’s parents move their argument into the living room. She is still wearing the apron. I was with her when she bought it. It was early days and she and I were trousseau shopping, back when we were still pretending that we wanted to be friends.
I look around the room; the only person here who doesn’t peeve me is the antique aunt, and she’s not really here.
When I was growing up I wanted to be Jewish. The chosen people, our earnest preacher called them. God’s favorite. I told my Jewish analyst this years later. He said it meant I wanted to be part of the in group. His high-priced interpretation. I always wanted to marry a Jewish husband too — the phrasing always tricky — marry a Jew: a little off. Like marry a black, the noun a little lonely. The adjective a lighter touch, a softer hand. Marry a Christian? Marry a Christian person? Not the same.
“You’re muttering,” my husband whispers near my ear.
“A minor gaffe, compared to the competition,” I whisper back, not taking special care with volume.
“You’ll be angry with my son,” Jake’s mother says, with what I could swear is a hint of satisfaction.
“I will be,” I say.
“It means nothing,” she says.
“How’s that?” I say.
My husband coughs a caution I’m happy to ignore.
“He speaks his mind,” Jake’s mother says, her satisfaction veering over into pride.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I say.
My husband coughs again. But he need not fear. We are not matched contestants. I am a Waspy fighter — sarcasm, insinuation, ironic innuendo. She’s a yeller, a score-keeper. Is this racist? Probably. Characterizations usually are. Our blows will only glance off one another’s aged exteriors. My husband need fear no engagement. You can’t fight with someone who doesn’t fight the way you do.
Jacob and Laura come in from the kitchen, her arm draped across his shoulder, her other hand grasping his arm. Have I taught my daughter then to be life’s victim? Schooled her in how to be abused? I feel completely responsible for everything she is and does.
“See? Nothing to it,” Jake’s mother says to me.
A knock sounds at the door. We can hear several voices from the hall. My first thought is it’s a street gang, standing oh so quiet, biding time politely there, brass knuckles nicely chilled from the Christmas cold.
“It’s carolers,” Jake calls out. “Singers.”
“Invite them in,” his mother says, “for Margaret,” she points at me and I envision a troop of tiny children, rosy-cheeked and woolly-mittened, already humming Good King Wenceslaus, prepared to sing all eight verses.
But no. We have no cherub band, this is their sodden uncles, black sheep aunts, their cousins who were-not-are-not-never-will-be welcome at the Christmas feast. This is a band of cast-off Christians, Salvation Army types, people to be awarded badges for forty-eight hours sobriety, if they make it until Boxing Day.
“Thank you for inviting us in.” The man who speaks is missing teeth, but broadly smiles.
Why? I want to say. I, who would say thank you if they invited me to leave with them.
“We’re very cold,” he says. “It’s very dark tonight.” Two independent miseries.
“We are happy to have you,” Laura says. “Would you like to sing something?”
The man looks puzzled, as though the invitation to the party had said nothing about supplying any tunes.
A short, fat woman standing all but hidden by the other says, “Jesus loves me,” half singing the words.
“Perhaps a Christmas song,” Laura says briskly. This is the woman who as a little girl insisted Jesus, with whom she had discussed the matter at some length, wanted us to feed the poor, teen druggies on Main Street and stop for every hitchhiker we ever saw.
The tallest, thinnest woman — humanity divided into short/tall, thin/fat — a woman, whose skin seems to have a bluish purple cast, her eyes a vacant haunt, her hand a tremor, starts to sing:
Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.
Her voice sounds like the reason God invented song, her fellows, the whole company in fact, struck silent as we should be.
Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
Mary we behold it, the Virgin Mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to us a Savior,
When half spent was the night.
The melody is more lovely than any I have ever heard, her gaze fixed on the champagne bottle on the table, she sings to it alone. Her eyes fixed there.
This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.
The song done, silence takes beauty’s place.
“She could go places with that voice,” Jake’s father says.
“I’ve been,” she says, addressing the tall green bottle.
“Could we offer you something?” I say. Jake’s mother coughs. Jake puts his hand on Laura’s arm. “Some food,” I say.
“What the hell,” Jake’s uncle says and reaches for the bottle. “Hell, it’s Christmas. Have a drink.” The room fills with a little flutter of polite refusals and knee-jerk thanks.
“Or would you like some coffee?” I say.
Yes, coffee. Coffee would be great. It’s a cold one tonight. With sugar. Lots of sugar.
Jake’s dad moves toward the kitchen. I follow him.
“Fucking coffee,” he mutters, but he grinds the special beans, and fills the creamer, pours more sugar in the bowl and takes down the wedding present Ainsley cups and saucers. I pat his shoulder, then lean close and kiss his cheek. “That old girl could sing at the Met,” he says.
“Maybe she has,” I say.
In the living room, our oldest guest has been convinced to have a little wine—for thy stomach’s sake and thine oft infirmities, St. Paul advises the colicky Christian.
“It is Christmas,” the soloist says, but makes no move to get a drink, and turns toward the kitchen.
Laura is passing cheese on bits of toast, then almonds, then spongy slices of panettone.
“These carolers don’t sing much,” Jake’s sister says.
“But when they do, it’s really something,” I say.
“This tastes like challah,” the tall singer says.
“How do you know challah?” Jake’s mother is more territorial of all things Jewish than Golda Meir.
“My bubbe made it. She put raisins in for me.” The prospect of coffee will sometimes draw us out.
“Was she Jewish?” Jake’s mother says.
“Yep,” the singer says. “Same as me.”
“But you were singing about Mary. You were singing about….” She will not speak the name of Jesus. That’s fine, I think. It should not be some easy name to say.
“Jesus, yes, I was. It’s his story. He’s the main character.”
“You mean of Christmas?” Jake says.
“I mean of night.”
I nod like I know what that means. In fact, I sort of do.
“Coffee, then.” Jake’s dad carries in a laden tray. He’s put crackers and a tiny bowl of caviar on a carved plate. Tonight I love him.
Five or six people who have been standing in a clump, now separate. Two sit, one moves to the window seat. One accordion pleats his long skinny legs and sits on the floor beside the coffee table. It’s the heady French roast, it’s the heavy cream, it’s the bone china. It’s people who once were strangers in a strange land entertaining angels unaware.
“Would you like to sing?” Jake’s mother says, once cups are drained.
“We only know songs about the Savior,” the youngest of the party says.
“What about “Here Comes Santa?” Jake’s sister says.
There’s a lady at my church who says she’s so sad her daughter’s children are being raised without any Christmas or Easter symbols.
“Give them that little angel in the manger,” she says. “Give them a necklace cross of pretty filigree or gold. It’s doesn’t have to mean anything.”
Here Comes Santa. Santa’s already here.
“We could sing We Three Kings,” The youngest man speaks with some portent.
“That sounds harmless,” Jake’s mother says.
We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star
They start with a smooth harmony, a solemn sound. I join in but they’ve lost me by the third verse which I imagine they have scripted travelling through the night—these wise men, wily women—travelling on some crosstown bus to get here, following some planet masquerading as a star. I think they composed these verses on that bus, scribbling with stubby pencils on old napkins, writing with red lipstick on the haunted windowpanes:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb
Jake’s Aunt Rita nods her head in time, almost as though the words’ meaning were some way clear to her through gauzy veils of cataracts and her hard-won dementia, the words’ meaning slipping across old barriers put up by custom, culture, history, by the living and their dead. Then with this voice she has not used for months now I am told, with this voice, raspy, scratchy, cracked and haunted, she begins to sing, but in what sounds like German, not in English certainly. But if the words are in another language, the tune is true, her voice more certain with each phrase, though her expression is as vague and distant as before. She hears no song, she sings not knowing who is singing. The tall soprano bends to sing now softly right by Rita’s ear. They sing the verse again, these two, the words in two different languages together sounding like a third, both Jews who’ve had a brush with baby Jesus and who have lived to tell the tale.
“The damned nuns,” Jake’s mother says. “They hid Aunt Rita and my mother during the war. They made them go to mass and sing and pray. God forbid you’d ever save somebody’s life without trying to convert them.”
“God forbid,” I say.
Jake’s mother sighs. Jake’s dad shuffles out to the kitchen. The singer who sang first tonight now sings on alone, the other humming, just as though the aged aunt had never been, had never onetime sung along with saving nuns, or with these vagrant carolers, lifetimes later.
The song done, the carolers rise and leave as though they have just remembered they’re expected at the manger. Impatient angels, foot-tapping shepherds, a swaddled infant Lord only waiting for them now, to begin a story that will be changing the world.
The room seems messy with them gone. Too many cups and saucers. Too many napkins crumpled by damp hands, too many ghosts and memories, as though they’ve left their lives behind.
I look down at the crèche. The baby’s gone. The manger is empty. I stir the straw on the stable floor with my little finger, but the child has disappeared.
“Jesus is missing,” I say.
“I beg your pardon.” Jake’s mother has clearly had enough of the Christ Child for one Christmas.
“She’s right,” Jake says. “One of the carolers must have stolen the baby from the crèche.”
“Kidnapped by one of his own,” Jake’s uncle says.
“Rescued from this bunch,” Jake’s sister says.
“Maybe someone took it for a good luck charm,” my husband says. He really doesn’t get it. Some atheists are fakers. He’s the real deal.
It isn’t until later, after sufficient champagne has been drunk, in celebration of the baby nobody here but me holds any truck with, that Jake’s mother says, “Margaret, tell us about this crèche then, so what’s the story? What is it all about?”
I look down at the manger, and suddenly the blackened edges seem as though they’ve seeped more deeply into each figure, the edges not just singed, but damaged. The manger suddenly an altar, the missing child a sacrifice, the shepherd’s staff a spear he’ll raise in anger, the father, not unhappy, rather, terrified. The mother bent not in adoring, but in Golgotha’s prescient sorrow.
We all get it wrong, the shepherds and the carolers and the nuns, the husbands and the freelance Christians and the kings. We get it wrong in myriads of variation: our families teach us how Our People do it, then we set about to make ready peace with our own misery-making by saying, Yeah, well, if you think I’m bad, Look at him!
I do it all the time. I do it in my sleep. In dreams I offer arguments to sleeping judges, make my sorry case to snoring juries. I try to wake them, shouting, See? I’m not so bad.
“So Margaret, tell us what it is you see when you look in this crèche.”
I look back down again. Just a straw-skirted mom and dad, some wobbly shepherds, dried grass kings with small stick presents, stubble sheep, one cow, too fat.
“It’s about Jesus,” I say. “It’s about a God who came to life to die.”
“But why?” Jake’s mother says.
“I have no idea,” I say.
Well I don’t.
I think that in his place, I never would have come.
Not, knowing what he did.
Not, given his experience.
It will not be till three more Christmases have passed, three more Hanukahs, three more Easters, three more Passovers have been and gone, that Jake’s mother will again encounter one of our carolers from this unlikely night. Her Aunt Rita, long consigned to a nursing home, though unaware of her surroundings, will be found sitting in the day room in the arms of our caroler, the one whose voice could make you reconsider living. The caroler, for so she is even in this stagey room of overstuffed chairs and patterned carpets, glassy-eyed chandeliers, sits singing softly, supporting Aunt Rita in her slender arms, rocking the frail tiny woman only slightly, holding Rita’s own singing in the middle of her song.
I have to do my own envisioning of the scene. When she tells me about it, Jake’s mother shades the picture with her ire.
“The nerve, coming there to sing her Jesus songs to poor Aunt Rita,” Jake’s mother says. “The aide said she’s been coming every week, forever. Well, I never saw her. Damned sneak.”
I harrumph. It’s what I’ve come to.
“You can’t tell me she would have come to sing songs about the weather.”
“I can’t,” I say.
“It’s the Jesus thing. These people can’t let it rest. They come after you when you’re most defenseless.”
What she says, it’s true. Jesus does seem to show up, or he sends one of his people, or a strange star, or a trumpet band of angels, precisely then. To caroling drunks and the demented, to scrappy shepherds, wasted kings.
Aunt Rita dies not three weeks after the miscreant caroler is discovered giving comfort there, and only later, going through Aunt Rita’s things, will Jake’s mother come upon that small, straw Baby Jesus from the crèche. She will find him in a zipper side pouch of an old pocketbook, still singed around the edges, a little sticky, scented, by some ancient candy mints, the baby twisted up in a blue tissue.
“I’m going to keep the damn thing,” Jake’s mother tells me. “So he won’t make any more trouble.” She’s going to keep the god of all creation in her bureau drawer: it’s no more fanciful than that he comes to live inside your heart. Devotion or distain, every single way we deal with God is fairly crazy.
Jake’s mother wasn’t looking for Jesus. Hardly anybody ever is. Even that first Christmas, only his folks and a few stray kings were on the lookout. The shepherds wanted nothing more that night than something warm against the cold, a full headcount, a sheltered crevice, a little sleep. They weren’t looking for a company of angels to blanche the blackness of the skies. It’s just that when they heard the heralds, saw the angels filling up the heavens, breaking up the night, those sorry shepherds left the sheep, just like that, they climbed down the mountain, slipping on wet grass, sliding, laughing, scared to death. Joy to the world. Peace on earth. Good will to man. They fell for it. Hook, line and sinker.
Linda McCullough Moore is the author of The Distance Between and This Road Will Take Us Closer To The Moon, a collection of linked stories acclaimed by Alice Munro, as well as 300 shorter pieces published here and there. www.lindamcculloughmoore.com.