I’ve Learned Not To Mess with My Grandma’s Nativity Scene

My family really isn’t one for setting traditions in stone. For instance, most years for Thanksgiving, my family will all get together for a traditional turkey dinner, the deliciousness of which is only soured by the fact that I still apparently haven’t earned my spot at the adults’ table. But, there was one year where my family ate Thanksgiving dinner in a Del Taco in Anaheim, California. We were on our way to Disneyland, and our schedule had been thrown off by an unexpected extra two hours of traffic. That was a very testy Thanksgiving.

The same is true for our Christmas traditions — some years my dad will put lights on our house; other years he’ll refrain and then try to get me to put them up when I complain but I’m not falling for that. Sometimes, being San Diegans who are accustomed to temperatures that never go below 63°, we’ll drive out to the mountains where it snows and have a good laugh at how priceless my younger brother’s reaction is when getting pelted by a snowball with a nice rock nestled inside. My mom is actually the only one who is completely consistent with her Christmas tradition — every year, she’ll put out all 15 of her nutcrackers and arrange them in such a way so that they stare at me, ready to strike, while I’m watching TV. (Note: In a previous Alternative Advent post, I said that my mom had 12 nutcrackers. My saying there are 15 is not a discrepancy – she bought three more since that post. Well, either she’s buying them or they’re breeding.)

A sampling of my mom's Nutcracker collection. Weird thing is, they lined up like this by themselves.
And while I do like the idea of having things that we do every year, the flexibility of the way my family does things now leads to some pleasant surprises. I was reminded of that the other day when I went to my grandma’s house partly to visit, but mostly to get free lunch. After we ate, my grandma asked if I’d help her put up some Christmas decoration, and I said yes, because I figured there was probably some ice cream in it for me if I worked efficiently. My uncle was around too, so all three of us put up the Christmas tree, put some Christmas candy out and set up the Nativity scene. That last task caused a bit of a scene, though. I think my grandma should have been more open-minded to my idea of positioning the sheep — which I took the liberty of renaming Billy Goat, The Animal Formerly Known as Lamb — in her Nativity scene precariously on the roof of the manger, because it was a little rascal and I wanted to make the ceramic shepherd boy earn his keep, but she put her foot down saying, “My stable, my rules.” (I sure felt sheepish.) I also enjoyed setting this up because I can’t get in trouble for saying “ass” when I’m clearly referring to the donkey laying next to baby Jesus. Apparently I’m 12.

My point with all of that is that decorating with my grandma and my uncle was actually a lot of fun, and it was unexpected. And, while there are plenty of good reflections and Bible passages that can help with our celebration of Advent, there’s also being present to the season and, perhaps most importantly, the people it brings you closest to. My grandma, uncle and I didn’t plan to get together and decorate — it just happened, which, by the way, also happens to be the story I’m sticking to if my uncle asks why the star for the Christmas tree is now in pieces.

But there’s a certain joy, a certain euphoria you get when you’re having a good time with people you love, and that’s not something specific to Advent. Part of living Advent intentionally is being conscious of combating consumerism and greed however you can; part of it is prayer and reflection. My favorite part, though, is what I experienced with my uncle and grandma and what I’m sure I’ll experience as I continue to catch my mom smuggling nutcrackers into the house and as my dad keeps giving eggnog another chance: those spontaneous moments with the people you love that make you smile, cry, lose your breath — that leave you speechless in gratitude and remind you in a profound way just how loved you are and, in turn, how deep your own love goes. If that’s all you’ve done or all you can do this Advent season, a time of preparation for the coming of a baby who represents the good in this world, I think that’s more than enough to make God smile.

José Martinez

José Martinez

José Martinez is a writer who works primarily for Southern California Public Radio, reporting on the South Los Angeles beat and focusing on issues of health and quality of life. He's a graduate of Loyola Marymount University and has a degree in theological studies. From the way he writes, it's clear he thinks he's funny. There are few things he loves more than California burritos, the way his dogs run into walls, and road trips. He'd like it if you tweet him.