My mom missed the big moms-making-ceramics trend of the early 1980s. She made up for it when the house emptied into college dorms about a decade later.
If you told my mom you liked pasta salad, she'd bestow so much on you for so long that 30 years on, you'd barely be able to look at it without a slight snarl of innate, oh-sweet-Moses-not-that-again, aversion (true story). Same for Kix cereal, Matchbox cars, knitted doll sweaters--you name it. Generosity to a fault, and when she got into something, it became The Thing for quite some time. And so it was with ceramics, albeit 10 years late. The little green Christmas trees with the holes and the plastic lights, Santa statues with candles inside, a few pumpkins, and several nativity sets. Which is where it got a little weird in the very best way.
Mom made simple nativity sets for my brother and me: Joseph, Mary, a manger, and a detached baby Jesus to be set into place on Christmas morning. She must have had more time after finishing those because she made a set for her and my dad that can only be described as epic. Joseph, Mary, manger, independent baby Jesus, all three wise men, a sizeable flock of camels, a few cows and horses, the angel Gabriel, a stable, and I think a couple each of pigs and birds. Just so you can picture it all, know Joseph was about 10 inches tall and everybody and everything else was in perfect scale with him. This was not your grandmother’s five-and-dime nativity set.
Slightly squished together, the whole, grand ensemble took up the entire top of our family’s well-scarred, yard sale spinet piano. But even that wasn’t quite what Mom had in mind, and shortly after Thanksgiving, she’d carefully set it all up and then go foraging through the neighborhood for holly and evergreen sprays to zhuzh up the place; Bethlehem was apparently very green that year. After that, there was no touching. This was Jerusalem back in the day and she’d chop your darn hand off. Merry Christmas.
Opposite my mom’s shiny, white, slightly obsessive cheer was my dad; guys like him are affectionately called “curmudgeons," which is code for “grouchy.” He never complimented the large-scale sprouting of the pure white holiest of moments atop our piano, but he never openly complained about it either, which was the same as a compliment. He wasn’t into ceramics but he liked boats a whole lot, and we were the family with wooden ship’s wheels and clanging marine clocks on our paneled walls.
The year they finished making college tuition payments, Mom commissioned an Eastern Shore craftsman to make a large replica of a skipjack for my dad. She also had the artist make a mahogany and glass case for it to keep the dust off. Dad’s eyes jumped with delight that Christmas morning and he spent a few hours inspecting every quarter-inch of the new pride and joy.
Around lunchtime, we found ourselves in the family room and somebody asked Dad where he planned to keep the ship. “On top of the piano,” he said before backwards nodding over his shoulder toward it and the epic nativity. “As soon as that meeting’s over.”
Well, there it was. I don’t think anyone in my family has uttered the word “nativity” out loud ever again. It is—all versions of it are—the meeting. Mine is a meeting, the one at my neighbor's house is a meeting, the big one at church is a meeting, and the gargantuan ceramic version my mom carefully set out every year for the next couple of decades is a meeting. Hers is carefully packed away in a big Rubbermaid bin in my basement (I quite literally don’t have a surface big enough to display it), that’s marked in huge Sharpie letters: Meeting. And the box that holds my much smaller version—the one that makes it to my living room every year—is marked the same way.
I guess that’s how lots of family sayings have come to be. And I think grown-up Jesus laughs along with us every year as we call the meeting to order (check out “Between Heaven and Mirth,” by James Martin, SJ, for validation). The meeting is central to our Christmas, which is central to our year, and I hope the tradition carries on way past me, though I won’t be trying to make any ceramic camels anytime soon.
Wishing your family a heartwarming holiday and your own, unique traditions to carry on. Especially the weird ones.