catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 23 :: 2006.12.15 — 2006.12.29


Unto us

Part 2 of 4


During study at Calvin College I was exposed to some postmodern art trends, including collage, found art, juxtaposition, and the sly use of mass-produced consumer articles.  I developed a love for bright plastic things and began to revel even more than usual in the toy aisles of thrift stores populated by the detritus of a thousand childhood toy boxes.  I decided to make a creche for Lois from a trip to that thrift store aisle.

With my eight-year-old nephew Blake in tow, we picked a store and began to troll its drab metal shelves for sacred objects.  I really lucked out when I found the toy barn, and everything evolved from there.

My nephew wasn't sure if he should join in the search for characters to populate the barnyard or call the insane asylum and tell them they should come pick up a new patient.  I was happy to play the quirky uncle for a while and talk about how we didn't have to have new things to be happy—used can do just fine.

It was one of his first Christmas times in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  His mother Lydia had divorced his father and moved herself and her family from Tucson, Arizona, to be closer to her roots. After the thrift store assemblage was complete, we each had a Frosty at a nearby Wendy's and then I took him to a store to pick out his own Christmas present from me.  My sister had given him some money to buy presents for others as well, and I helped him pick those out too.  It was good to play a bit of the role of father for him, since his own father wasn't there.

As I recall, Lois received this crèche with her usual good humor.  The year before I gave her one made from trash I picked up off the streets of San Francisco, so she knew that all my gifts would not be of the orthodox variety.  That first year I tried to keep maintain the thrift store crèche as an untouchable "high art" piece.  In subsequent years though it's been put out as a toy and the kids have played with it, which is the way it should be, I suppose.

I love it that Jesus is a roly-poly bouncy bunny.  I think of the Easter rabbit when I see it.  Jesus rises from the grave—no keeping him down, just like there's no tipping that bunny.

I like, too, that Shamu the Killer Whale is part of the barnyard scene.  A creature with such a mixed reputation, cuddly and fierce all in one.  Makes me think of Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia: bury your tear-stained face in his soft, soft mane, sure, but remember, "He's not a tame lion…"

The butterfly is the guiding star, of course, a mirror to reflect our own humanness into the scene.  The three ceramic figures—Santa, snowman, and candle bear—are the three wise men.  The red elf as angel is the only piece not from the thrift store.  He hung out in a box of miscellaneous Christmas toys my mother brought out every year, and I decided to appropriate him for this scene.  I love his smiling red lips, an exuberant angel.  As for the pony, who says the ultimate in cuddly commercial kitsch has no right to bow before the physicality of God become human?

There are no shepherds here, I guess, though there is the little Nutcracker guy.  He's supposed to have a candle in front of him that he's playing like a drum.  "The Little Drummer Boy" song and story was prevalent enough in our family's Christmas mythology that I threw him in.

It seemed appropriate to me that Joseph and Mary are a British lord and an Indian woman wrapped in a sari.  Isn't Joseph the supposedly strong and silent protector type?  Doesn't Mary wrap herself in a loose cloth in most of those traditional images?  And if Jesus is the Prince of Peace, surely he can identify with figures from the land of Wilberforce and Gandhi.  Surely he can reconcile the oppressors with the oppressed and birth Easter anew each year from the carnage of our ancient and our modern colonial atrocities.

Come to think of it, I'll be spending Christmas in India this year.  Maybe I'll learn something substantive about my whimsical juxtaposition of British and Indian.

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