He laid in a crib made from scrap plywood, 1X2’s and a smattering of nails. The crib is long gone, but i’m pretty sure that the beige (yes, beige) paint that was used to cover any imperfections lives on somewhere. It was simply far too ugly a color as to not have some sort of half-life associated with it. In fact, thinking back, this crib was one of the rare items my dad created without the aid of shellac. Possibly because it was before he had yet discovered the stuff, but i tend to think it was really just all in a effort to enforce our memories of the crib – and the tradition associated with it – all the more.
Baby Jesus wasn’t in the crib when it first took it’s honored position in the corner of the kitchen, atop a T.V. tray that was made of fake dark wood top and completed by fake golden trim and leg. The kind of legs designed to snap easily into little plastic junctures located beneath the surface, that simply screamed anytime you placed anything greater than a pound or two upon the tray’s top. Beside the crib was a bag of hay, freshly purchased but never blessed. i have never once taken the time to ask my folks where, exactly, they found a source for little plastic bags of hay, but trust me, that’s all it was. And usually the bag was just big enough as to fill the crib to overflowing should all of it’s contents be dumped within. But all of it’s contents never were. No, as noted last time, how much of the stuff went into the crib was dependent upon us. Well, our good (or bad) deeds at any rate. Fortunately for both us and the babe, our activity was only monitored in this fashion from the time Advent began until Christmas morn. For every good deed, a handful of hay went into the crib, and for every bad deed, a handful came out.
i seem to recall hazily at one point that we were able to convince dad that he created an offense so great as to warrant his removing a handful of hay, but other than this one partially-remembered instance, the task of filling or emptying the crib lay solely on us three children. The parents apparently thinking they were above judgement and/or contribution. As to what my dad’s offense was, i can’t remember. But both the fact that we had mom on our side AND he actually conceded in pulling his fair share from the trough ensured that whatever it was, it must have been a doozie, even more grievous than our child-like minds understood it to be. Dad was never one to admit wrong-doing or error of any sort, and i have a inkling that once he does get up to heaven, he’ll spend a good amount of time telling God just exactly how He should have done it all.
Regardless, from the day the crib was laid down upon the table to the morn of Christ’s birth, we worked feverishly to perform some sort of good deed on an almost daily basis. The bad deeds seem to come a lot easier, and sadly, it took the three of us much too long to recognize the fact that tattling on each other when these deeds occurred served absolutely no one’s best interest. Bad deeds by the way, also included (but never were counted) items such as making up tales of fictional good deeds as well as randomly sneaking partial handfuls into the crib, both done to bolster the hay count before the blessed day of birth. Never was a full handful attempted on the sly, for surely mom would know. And she would have. All said, i’m none too sure if the crib-stuffing practice helped us to be good boys, or simply aided us in our training of the art of deceit. Possibly a bit of both. None of it mattered however, as long as the crib was at the level of “comfy” for Baby Jesus to snuggle down in by Christmas day (i seem to remember that one year it was not, but the memories of that event are far too sketchy as to recall them here).
Then, bright and early on Christmas morning (and in my house, it was much more early than bright, in that the sun hardly ever rose to meet with us at four AM when we were jumping from our sacks), we would get up and huddle close together under the tree in nervous anticipation of mom and dad also getting out of bed. Once they did, we would move the TV tray to the living room beside the tree. After placing Jesus – resplendent in a blue wrap and bow long since lost – into his crib and lighting the candle that was jammed happily into his birthday cupcake, we would rush through a half-hearted version of “Happy Birthday”. The faster we three sang, all the slower our parents did in response. It took several years to figure all this out and determine that the quickest way to get it over with was to simply sing it correctly first time around. We sang in haste, because it was only after we completed the song, blew out the candle and… well, i have no earthly idea or recollection as to what we did with the cupcake. Who the flip cared? The song was over! And while the cupcake was apparently having something done to it seeing as we never saw it again, the three of us were ravaging through the brightly packaged boxes under the tree, all in the hopes that the store Santa we saw was the real deal. Or at least had taken careful mental note of our desires (seeing as he was never with pen or paper), reporting them back correctly to the big man.
We followed this tradition each and every year for i don’t know how many years. Each and every year except one. As is the case so often, i firmly place all the blame on what we have dubbed “That One Time” (as in, “do you remember that one time…”) upon my older brother. He had to be the one who told us that morning, as we sat glassy-eyed under the tree in wonderment, that he had checked with mom and she had said it was OK to unwrap the gifts before we sang. If it wasn’t him who said it, it would have been my little brother. And that couldn’t have been the case, because we never listened to him anyway. By the time mom and dad became aware of our transgressions, almost every box was unwrapped, every Christmas dream revealed, and while i don’t remember specifics, i do recall that it was a year with a particularly good haul. Mom was devastated that we had done such a thing, and dad – who had yet had the heart attack that would mellow him – went utterly and simply. Ape. Shit. Do you know how in cartoons, a character is occasionally shown with their head expanding to the point of explosion? i could swear that on that morn, my dad’s head actually did exactly that. Fortunately a new one grew back relatively quickly, but unfortunately as soon as it had, he made us re-wrap all the presents and place them under the tree again. OK, that last part might be a bit of an exaggeration – i can’t recall if we actually had to rewrap the gifts (but it sure felt as if we did), but we did have to re-tree each and every one and march off promptly back to bed, empty-handed.
We all three laid there, wondering if we were ever going to celebrate Christmas again. The pain was made all the worse by the fact that we already knew what awaited us, present-wise. After what felt like 80 years or so, my folks finally told us we could get up, and when we sheepishly returned to the living room, we saw Baby Jesus there by the tree, the cupcake in place and the candle lit. We were actually being allowed a “do-over” from my dad! Christmas miracles abounded! The thrill we felt at being saved further punishment far outweighed even the desire to get back to the presents, and i’m pretty sure that year was the very prettiest we ever did sing “Happy Birthday” to Baby Jesus.
To this day, mom always puts in my kids cards “remember to sing to Baby Jesus”, but we never do. i may be a bad parent, but i just don’t want my children to be bullied into their faith. It took me too many years to actually come back around and actively “choose” mine. Now, while we don’t sing as a family, i will let you in a little secret – i don’t sing it alone either. But every year, i do catch myself at one point or another very quietly closing my eyes for a brief moment and saying “Happy birthday Jesus.”