He really didn’t like Christmas very much at all. The man didn’t hate this time of year. That would have taken far more energy, passion and commitment than he was willing to spend on anything. He wasn’t opposed to the season in the way that, for example Dickens portrayed old Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. That, too, would have required a personal stand and individual effort that he just couldn’t muster up at this time of year. No, for him, Christmas was more of a dull ache or irritation. Christmas was a fingernail cut too short. It was elastic on his underwear that had lost its vigor. Christmas was a pebble in his shoe, a rattle in the dashboard. He didn’t like it. But he could hardly generate the initiative to do much about it.
His name was Hilbert Neugebauer. He was the custodian at the old downtown church. That probably didn’t help his Christmas mood any–what with taking chairs down and putting them up for fourteen different Christmas teas, the interminable vacuuming after children’s programs and concerts, after parties and receptions, after luncheons and meetings. Worst of all, it was his job to put out the decrepit old Nativity scene. Reuben and Mildred Broadbuckle had made and donated the set nearly forty years ago. Apparently no one had the gumption or the nerve to suggest that the decaying plywood characters should be replaced by more state of the art Christmas decorations. So year in and year out, the old custodian put up the same characters in the same places at the same time. He just didn’t like Christmas very much at all.
The Nativity scene itself was fraught with tradition and required behaviors. December 6th, St. Nicholas Day, was the unwritten deadline by which the scene must be erected on the church lawn. Only once in his years as custodian did Hilbert miss that deadline. His tardiness was still the topic of conversation when things got a little slow around the church coffee pot in December. The positioning of the characters was also sacrosanct. Mary was to Joseph’s left. The donkey had to be to the right of the sheep. The shepherds were downstage left. The wise men were upstage right. The star was fastened to a strand of number nine wire connected to the left arm of the wooden cross that served as a background to the whole scene. The angel was fastened in the same way to the right arm of the cross. The angel was required to be exactly eighteen inches higher than the star, to reflect how Reuben and Mildred understood the divine order of creation. Hilbert thought it was all a royal pain in the…oh, never mind.
It was Monday and there was a new phrase on the church sign. It was a Bible verse, although the custodian couldn’t quite place where it came from. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The old man could always tell when the pastor was feeling overworked and harassed. Those were the times when the pastor resorted to a Biblical quotation rather coming up with some clever and pithy saying. It took far less effort to just whip out a few choice lines from Holy Writ than to invent something that might actually be novel and stimulating. The old custodian grumbled to himself, “None of it ever changes. The same crummy nativity set, the same tired Bible verses, the same silly Christmas carols–why don’t we just phone in this whole Christmas thing and save a lot of trouble!”
Hilbert just didn’t like Christmas very much. Part of it was that for years he had been particularly sensitive to illnesses and deaths around Christmas. Working for the church for as long as he had, he was pretty much in the know about all such events in the community. He remembered when the Johannsen boy was driving a tractor and pushing some snow, not two days before Christmas. The boy got a little over zealous with the tractor and rolled the rig right on top of himself. The custodian remembered the big funeral on that bitterly cold December 26th. Then there was Agnes Plueger, their next door neighbor–finest pumpkin pecan pie the world has ever tasted. And there she was, in the ground on December 16th of 1972. Every time something like that happened, he would sit by the table at home and cluck knowingly, “Another perfectly good Christmas, all shot to…” But before he could finish that dire phrase, his wife would shoot him a glance that stopped all speech in the room. Anna Neugebauer had no patience for his swearing and would have none of it in her house, especially when the subject was Christmas.
It was all smug speculation until that first Christmas six years ago when she was no longer there. She hadn’t felt quite herself for a few days, and he nudged her a few times about seeing the doctor. But she was sure that it was just a little indigestion. Then, on December 17th of 1993, she was gone. No goodbyes, no final tearful embraces, none ofthat–just alive when he crawled into bed that night and gone the next morning. Even now he could remember standing next to the bed after futile efforts to wake her and thinking to himself, “Another perfectly good Christmas all shot to…” Even now, out of love and respect for her, he could never bring himself to finish that awful phrase.
He was thinking about his Anna the second Monday in December as he performed his annual cleanup of Nativity Scene vandalism. Another of the unwritten traditions connected with the Nativity Scene was some creative, but very secretive, remodeling of the Nativity scene by the senior high Bible class. Sometimes the vandalism was quite creative. About ten years ago Hilbert came to the church one morning to find the Mary and Joseph characters stacked on top of the manger. Attached to Joseph was a note that read simply, “Luke 2:16.” Hilbert looked it up and read these words, “So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. ” Other years were not quite to clever. Unfortunately Joseph had clearly distinguishable fingers on his right hand. Hilbert had lost track of the number of times he had to replace all but the middle finger on that hand. Once, Mary appeared made up with glaring purple nail polish, false eyelashes, ruby red lips and half a pound of rouge on her cheeks. That, Hilbert thought, was quite a commentary on the Virgin Mother.
This year was one of the least creative efforts. The baby Jesus was up in a tree limb. The sheep were placed in morally questionable relationships to one another. Joseph had a pack of Camels in his hand and Mary had an open bottle at her feet. Hilbert grumbled, “Even the Christmas vandalism isn’t what it used to be.”
That night disaster struck. The vandals returned to complete the job. A lack of creativity turned into an expression of malice. Some lighter fluid and matches did the trick. In a few moments the ancient, tinder-dry figures had flames licking at their faces. The wind picked up, and the flames moved to the ancient wooden cross behind the Nativity. There wasn’t enough fire to reach the church or damage any buildings. But the Nativity scene was a total loss. Worse yet, the base of the cross, fragile from years of rot and moisture, gave way. Fortunately no one was injured, because the twenty foot cross toppled into the middle of the ruined Nativity, flat on the snow.
Hilbert’s phone rang in the early morning. “Do you know what time it is?” he shouted into the phone before he even looked at his alarm clock. “It’s 6:30 a.m., Hilbert.” The pastor was on the other end. “You better come to the church. Someone burned down the Nativity.”
Oh, the curses and imprecations, the fantasies of dismemberment and execution that went through the old custodian’s mind as he drove to the scene of the crime! He saw Joseph, blackened from the chest down. He looked at Mary, paint curling up toward her chin. He saw scorched shepherds, singed wise men, charred camels and stumps that used to be sheep. He began to clean up the mess. He muttered to himself, “Don’t know what difference it all makes. Nobody seems to care anyway. Christmases come and go and nobody notices. Should have probably burned this stuff years ago. Oh well, what can you expect. Another perfectly good Christmas all shot to…well, you know.”
The one item that survived the fire in good shape was the sign, the one with the Bible verse–The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Maybe that’s what did it. Maybe it was just plain a miracle. Who knows? At any rate, in a day or two, there was a Nativity resurrection in front of that old church. First there was a shepherd that looked suspiciously like Herbie Husker. Then there was a wise man who bore a striking resemblance to the Smoky the Bear figure down at the fire station. Mary and Joseph seemed to have had a previous existence as manikins in the J.C. Penny store that closed a year or so ago. The donkey was a first cousin to a pinata character that Lillian Dornbusch kept in her parlor. The new camel was apparently a fraternal twin to Jefrey Giraffe from Toys’ R’ Us. The new manger might have been liberated from the county fairgrounds, although no one was talking. The star seemed to be a spotlight from Andy’s Auto Repair down the street. The angel still had on his Superman cape, but somehow that seemed to work into the scene. The baby Jesus had done time as a Cabbage Patch kid, and he looked relieved to be working a new gig. Finally, some considerate person put a small fire extinguisher in the new manger as a precaution against future adventures.
Hilbert just shook his head as the gifts continued to appear. To one side that wretched sign kept broadcasting its message: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. In the middle of it all lay the cross–singed, blackened and broken, but still there. And as he worked and grumbled and moped, he was suddenly reminded of another perfectly good Christmas all shot to…well, you know.
It was a Christmas with more than its share of rough spots–a long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a pregnancy of questionable origin, parents of impeccable credentials but with little credibility, a birth in a barn and a crib licked shiny by the tongues of a hundred cows. Yet, for all that, it looked awfully good for awhile. Angels, shepherds, magi–a cast of thousands to be sure. Songs of praise, words of wonder, treasures of great price–things were certainly looking up for the little boy and his family. A miraculous escape by night to a foreign country, a trip home to wondering relatives, years of growing in wisdom and stature and favor with God and people–the boy showed great promise. It was a perfectly good Christmas.
Then the inevitable shadow appeared. It was a shadow in the shape of a cross. That shadow lay across that perfectly good Christmas just like the cross lay across the makeshift Nativity scene. The little boy who had cried in that Bethlehem stable screamed from a Jerusalem hill, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The twelve year old who debated fine points of theology with temple scholars whispered in agony, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The young man who looked up to a heaven torn to shreds and heard the words, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased”–he groaned his final words, “It is finished.” This teacher and healer who made the lame to walk and the blind to see–he breathed his last and committed that breath to his heavenly Father. And he too was dead. Just like my Anna, Hilbert thought. Another perfectly good Christmas, shot to…well, you know.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. That sign just would not quit. Because here was something else. Here was resurrection. Here was new life where there had been only death. It was an act of foolishness, of stupidity, of irrational malice that burned down the Broadbuckle Nativity. How different was that from the sin, the death, the evil that had nailed Jesus to a cross so many years ago? Not very much, Hilbert thought. Yet, the Nativity refused destruction. The darkness took its best shot and lost. A new light shone forth from a tomb. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people.
The makeshift Nativity scene stayed up all that Christmas season. After Christmas people decided to take up a collection and buy a new, respectable set of characters. The old wooden cross was retired and a new steel one was set in its place. The whole area was illuminated with a security light, and the tradition of Nativity scene vandalism became a subject of exaggeration and legend. But Hilbert always remembered that Christmas. After it was over he went to the cemetery to Anna’s grave, to talk to her like he did sometimes. He said to her, “You know, Anna, it was another perfectly good Christmas.”