In the front yard, there is a nativity scene that awaits the birth of its Christ. Mother set up the display about two weeks ago. Father and she used to do it together. The first weekend of December they would go up in the attic on Sunday afternoon and bring down all of the supplies. Out they would go into the winter twilight and there they would set up all the parts to the plastic set. I would watch from inside, with my face pressed up against the glass of the bay window, cold but curious. First, Father would drive in the poles and place the roof of the manger lean-to. Mother would stand the three wise men, bearing their fake plastic gifts, to the right of the opening while Father spread hay from a bail he picked-up on his way home from work. The cradle was then placed by Mother, and Father flanked it with the hollow plastic shells representing Mary and Joseph. Together they would ceremoniously lay the Baby Jesus doll to rest as if his rubber skin needed their soft care. This year she did it all alone. Since I am the man of the house now, after Father’s death, I guess I could have helped, but I never helped before.
As a child, I watched the ritual with awe and reverence, a little too much reverence to ever participate, since fear I have always felt in reverence. Even as a rebellious teenager my eyes would be on the pair of them out there, like a King and Queen placing their very own child on a throne in the chill dusky air, and I could not help but respect them. With the respect was always a little fear, too.
Father used to tell me that Jesus was not really born on December 25th. He would say that it was really a celebration of the Winter Solstice or Saturnalia for the ancient Romans. Actually, most cultures had some form of seasonal holiday at this time. Jesus was most likely born in spring, near Passover, maybe around April, was the consensus he said most scholars had. His eyes would shift and he would lower his voice, as if he was scared someone was listening, when he would tell me that the Church assimilated this holiday and made it their most holy to appease the pagans they sought to convert. It was all politics, all propaganda. When I asked Father why he went through it all, why the nativity scene, why all the care, he would answer that he did it all for her, for Mother.
Before I was old enough to understand what all of this meant, I sometimes felt a little ashamed when I would see his zeal out there in construction of the scene. To celebrate Jesus’ birthday when he knew it was not, just for her, for love. But, he said there were other reasons to celebrate. Father told me that the beauty of this holiday for the pagans was that, though it looked and felt like a time of death and despair, it held the promise of rebirth and renewal. Although the ground was cold, seeds were planted to grow at a later time; they gestated there, in the belly of the earth, just below the surface. He pointed out that our Christmas tree was an evergreen, and represented the continuity of life. I tried to understand that there was something more in it for him.
Last year, Father went into the hospital the first week of December. He had a stroke in his sleep. I came home early from school for the holidays. Mother and I spent his last few weeks in the hospital with him. I would watch through the glass in the intensive care unit as Mother sat by Father and held his unresponsive hand, limp and rubbery. There was no nativity last year. Instead of Christmas, we had a wake.
I went back to school as soon as I could and did not return until this holiday break. I spent the summer in the dorms, avoiding Mother. I even tried to dodge her telephone calls as best as I could, but she left messages and her letters piled up. For the last two weeks I have spent most of my time sitting here, in this bay window box, in this quiet and shadowy house looking at the back of the nativity scene on the lawn, in the same place where I watched her set it up alone, the same place where I watched them both set it up for the last time two years ago. Mother and I have not spoken much since I have been home.
I was quiet last night as I waited outside of her door. When her light went out I knew she wasn’t asleep, but I listened a while longer in silence. Silence was all that came back at me from her room. She did not sleep much anymore, but I hoped her motionless attention was elsewhere so she wouldn’t know what I was doing. After ample time, I crept outside, careful of the front door’s hum, almost like a voice in the dead winter house. Over the hard earth of the lawn, I made my way to the nativity scene. As I approached, I felt the six plastic wise man eyes upon me, an intruder in their midst, not part of their tradition. My pulse pounded in their presence, I felt alive, and they were stiff and powerless to my sense of purpose. Mary and Joseph looked at me too, hollow shells they were, plastic, empty. But Baby Jesus glowed there wrapped up in his cradle, not like the others. With precision and quick care, I swooped up the Baby Jesus and held him to my breast. Without thinking, but knowing exactly what I was doing, I was on my knees, instantly digging. The only image in my mind was of the squirrels on the quad at my college. Only a month ago I witnessed their calculated winter plans where they hid acorns and nuts in the ground so that after the snow sets in and the trees are bare, there is food that lies beneath the cold. I remember wondering how many acorns are never found and though a squirrel might go hungry, an oak has the chance to grow.
So now, I look out to the back of the nativity scene and listen to find out if Mother has gone to bed. There is a shadow of the five forms cast onto the frosted lawn by the streetlight. The three wise men are to the left and the two parents to the right, still in the cold night. I cannot see where the earth was overturned last night, where it was stamped down with my boot, and where the Baby Jesus now rests, but I look out and wait for spring and the warmth that it will bring.
Jordan A. Rothacker is a poet, novelist, and essayist living in Athens, Georgia, where he earned a Master’s in Religion and a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia. His journalism has appeared in periodicals as diverse as Vegetarian Times and International Wristwatch, while his fiction, poetry, reviews, and essays can be found in such illustrious venues as Red River Review, Dark Matter, Dead Flowers, Stone Highway Review, May Day, As It Ought to Be, The Exquisite Corpse, The Believer, Bomb Magazine, and Guernica. For book length work check out Rothacker’s The Pit, and No Other Stories (Black Hill Press, 2015), a novella (or “micro-epic” as he calls it), and his first full-length novel, And Wind Will Wash Away (Deeds Publishing, 2016). He edited Maawaam’s My Shadow Book (Spaceboy Books, 2017), loves sandwiches (a category in which he classifies pizza and tacos), and debating taxonomy almost as much as he loves his wife, his son, his dogs, and his cat, Whiskey. A collection of weird tales, Gristle, in which “Winter Solstice” appears, is forthcoming from Stalking Horse Press.