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Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity it was not. No pastel colors and cavorting, early-Renaissance angels.
But every year my cousins and I put on a nativity scene on the landing of my grandparents staircase. Not because we were particularly religious. But because we had an eye for spectacle. We would have been agog at Hampden’s 34th street’s light show; because, back in my day, at my grandparents, they still had the strings of lights around the Christmas tree with the big bulbs, the kind that could burn ya.
From early ages when we were all together at the winter holidays what else was there to do but play ping pong and put on Christmas plays? Among them, What If The Titanic Hadn’t Sunk? and Sherlock Holmes AND Sherlock Holmes, so titled because my next youngest cousin and I couldn’t agree on who would be the lead.What was the Nativity but another play? And a great one, because we could enlist my grandfather’s big sweet yellow lab in, too, to play an ass?
My youngest cousins could be commanded to bray like donkeys before they grew up and realized it was beneath them.
Rehearsals began with my second youngest cousin and I quibbling over who would be the plum part. The Angel. I want to be The Angel. No I want to be The Angel. Hey, you’re pulling my hair! That’s so not angelic. It was true, what can I say? I was a scrappy brunette.
I invariably lost out to my blonde ringleted cousin, who could also play beautiful classical piano.
I ended up playing Mary. Mary the brooding. Mary the I-could-have-been-a-contender
there’s always next year with my grandmother’s monogrammed blue bathroom hand towel around my head, fastened with my mom’s gold lame belt — this was the early 70s, folks, have a heart — while I listened to my cousin play the hell out of O Holy Night.
My younger sister was always Jesus. She curled herself up like a fetus and didn’t mind being half zippered into a green pleather suitcase. We’d ask once, “Are you sure you can breathe?” and leave it at that. That was our manger.
The gifts from the Three Wise Men were 1) A shoebox of dog toys (to persuade the dog playing the ass not to wander off for greener pastures) and 2) my aunt’s Christmas cookies in the shapes and flavors none of us kids liked: rum thumbprints and anise pizzelles in keeping with Jesus’ teachings that “the stone that the builder rejects will become the leader on the cookie plate…” or something like that, it’s been a long time since I went Bible camp.
I tell the story of this nativity scene to my kids, 6 and 8, and because they are hams to the core, they are so excited to change the words from the boring and indeciferable Away In A Manger, to the much more arresting, Aunt Lucy At The Bottom Of The Stairs In A Suitcase.
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