Biff America: Sour milk and burnt wax (column)
A Jesus-in-the-manger display was the focal point of my family’s Christmas decorations while growing up. My sister made it in Girl Scouts. A milk carton served as the manger, with pipe cleaners wearing rags depicting Mary, Joseph and the three Wise Men. A small yellow light bulb was stuck through a hole in the milk carton and when it was left on too long you could smell sour milk and burnt wax.
The manger and crew, minus the Christ, would be set up in early December. On Christmas Eve my mother would ceremoniously place the Savior, made from baked Silly Putty and wrapped in swaddling clothes (cut up sweat socks) in the milk carton stable while “Silent Night” played on the phonograph.
My memories are not tainted by cynicism. I was almost 13 years younger than my older siblings; I looked forward to the tradition, but I’m sure they thought it lame.
Though we live in a nation where over 80 percent of the population consider themselves either Christian or Jew, I think it is safe to say many of us have softened our belief in the literal teachings of the creeds of our childhoods.
When I reflect on my Roman Catholic upbringing I can say that though I can no longer consider myself a “good Catholic,” being raised as one provided a moral barometer at a time when it was desperately needed. Organized religion leaves very little to interpretation; anyone who pays attention knows the rules. There are 10 commandments, seven deadly sins, ecumenical edicts. But, of course, knowing isn’t doing. It has been my experience that those who wear their faith on their shirt sleeve are often the least likely to live by its teachings. I can’t throw stones; I’m admittedly guilty of six of the seven deadly sins (I plead innocent of gluttony mostly because my mate includes kale in every meal). I wasn’t sure about avarice until I looked it up… Yup, done that.
Many decades of resort living and being without children has anesthetized some of the Christmas spirit out of me. As our community fills to the gills with folks from all over the world, the crowds can make the holidays — Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza and the birthday of my mate — something to get through rather than enjoy.
That said, I would suggest that whatever your faith, or how firm your beliefs, America would be well served to embrace the holiday spirit this season. If not to follow the edicts of a particular religion of which you may have questions or doubts; but rather for a reset of brotherhood that this country needs right now.
There are stories about soldiers during the First World War who, though days before were trying to kill each other, set down their arms and celebrated the holidays together on no man’s land. I would imagine, one by one, the warriors had the revelation that they were little more than pawns in the politicians’ games and for just one day they allowed themselves to look at the “other side” as fellow soldiers with souls rather than the enemy.
I would argue that the recent campaign and election has done to the nation what conflicts have done to the world. Just as the legislators and generals are well served by the soldier’s belief that the hapless cannon fodder on the opposing side of the battle line was somehow less than human and evil, the same could be said by the parties and media during the last 13 months.
I was driving though a small ranching town in southern Colorado and saw on the town’s square a manger scene. The quality was not much better than the one my sister made, yet the scale was life size. Now granted, there would be an argument that this small town was favoring one creed over the others by this religious display on public land. But I would reason that whatever your beliefs regarding whether the event depicted occurred or not, or whether Jesus was a man or God, his message is pure — share your bounty, love each other and don’t be a jerk (the last one is mine).
I got out of my truck and approached the manger. To the credit of the community, Christ, Mary and Joseph were dark complexioned, but one of the wise men appeared to have scoliosis. As I looked down on the scene of course I was reminded that for much of the world the sight portrays the birth of a Messiah, but I also saw the birth of a man who preached love, compassion and acceptance. As if on cue it started to snow, the white stuff collected on Mary’s head and seemed to run down her face like tears. In my off -key voice with a Boston accent I sang a few bars of “Silent Night” as I walked back to my truck.
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