“You don’t have to make every person in the city of Jerusalem,” my son says to me. He is home from college for the weekend and surveying the scene, incredulous that the stacks of fabric, scattered paper patterns, bags of pellets, stuffing, trim and buttons are ever going to amount to a proper Holy Family. I explain patiently. “It is Bethlehem, not Jerusalem, and there are a lot of characters in this story. I have already edited out the Innkeeper and his wife who are super important.” He says, “They are not what I would call ‘super important’.” I am indignant. “No Innkeeper’s wife, no manger. She orchestrated the whole setting” The row of cutout faces, lined up in various flesh tones alongside their corresponding future bodies, is particularly disconcerting to him. “Why does Jesus look like a thumb?” “Because that is how he is made, he is in swaddling clothes.” My son shivers. “He looks creepy.”
This is part of our holiday tradition. I attempt some seemingly impossible list of homemade gifts and my children and husband watch this ritual of aspirational overachievement with benevolent bemusement. Toys, quilts, scarves, all manner of stuffed and assembled things, most of which could be more easily and cheaply purchased, are in the works from November to the wee hours of Christmas morning. Skins and innards are strung everywhere as Mama Kringle assures everyone that this year she will get everything done on time and without incident. Retail jobs, small children, sickness, travel, nothing deters the hum of the machine or the smoke of the glue gun.
Last year I decided I wanted to make a Nativity out of bean bag dolls. I had bought the pattern years ago but had never done anything with it. I was trying to think of something special for my brother-in-law’s family and I pulled it out. It was the year to do it.
As always, at first I dream big. Could this be an advent set, revealing a new character or creature every day of December? Could I build a wooden structure to put them in? Could all their clothes be the same color or texture? In the end, I go simple, just the main characters, with outfits that seem to fit their role or function. I ransack boxes of fabric scraps, every upholstery swatch I ever hoarded, I even find a tiny square of kimono fabric that will make my angel’s wings shimmer with glory. I wander around the house looking for inspiration. Leftover yarn for the donkey blanket, broken jewelry for a wise man, wire for the shepherd’s crook. I want a multicultural ensemble from many made-up ancient lands. I also want the Mary of my Catholic childhood, all gauzy and blue.
Each year the cycle is the same. I start out hopeful and excitedly rummaging through materials. Then each process is harder than I think it will be, and takes longer than I plan it to be, and never looks exactly how I imagined it would. Many things get eliminated or re-engineered. When I am discouraged and tired, I join my family in questioning. Why am I doing this? Just one year I could do what other moms do. I could make cookies, decorate the house before mid-December, give service to people in need, clean the bathroom. I could enjoy the holiday from the front room and not spinning in my self-imposed dungeon full of straw. Why not just go to Kohl’s like normal people?
The answer is not in the end result, which can be cute or occasionally closer to Ralphie’s bunny suit in the movie A Christmas Story (Yes, I am that aunt who makes things). I do it because in the doing, I am seeking. My mind wanders through metaphors during these late December nights. The alchemists who hypothesized that in distilling earthly substance, they would find the secret to an eternal spirit. The Shakers who believed that making something well was an “act of prayer” and worshiped in the simplicity of daily tasks. The pioneers who put their shoulder to the wheel and turned their desert into a garden. My strange gifts are hardly Shaker chairs, but there is purpose in the activity.
As I sew, I tell myself three stories at the same time. The first is the story of the family that I am depicting. Something is happening. Only a few insiders knew about it. Two parents, a bunch of angels, random shepherds, a few kings. What would Joseph and Mary say to each other? I am fascinated by their relationship. Where were the kings from? How did they communicate if they came from all over? Everyone is trying hard to bring the right present. What do you bring the King of Kings? A lamb? A luxury item that both echoes Isaiah’s prophecies and is small enough to carry? A song on a drum? Generations have wondered what they would wrap up and set before the king. I remember a million scriptures, hymns, storybooks, movies.
Then there is the second story. I envision children playing with these dolls. The girls opening the little velcro hands, making the people walk and talk to welcome their guests. My niece would eagerly put that thumb-shaped baby Jesus in Mary’s arms. The twin toddler boys would hurdle sheep at each other across the room. I think of how much I love this second family with their quirky personalities and their generous acceptance. I think of how kind they are to our family and how much my boys adore them. I get teary as I reinforce each seam so they can play with wild abandon.
Then there is my story. As my hands move, my head and heart move in synchrony, crafting narrative, memory, hope of being together some day. This is my time to bask in Christmas. In building things, I am making time. I am constructing my own path to both of these beloved families far away, not with letters, emails or calls, but with this gift. They are sitting next to me and in this moment we are close.
My yearly projects are a crazy mix of practical work, delirious imagination and a rush of love and connection. How do I convey all those abstract Christmas words – peace, joy, salvation? I make a stuffed Nativity scene. For me, each stitch is a celebration of what I cannot say any other way.