Monday, November 3, 2008

Review: A family Christmas, MG style

My mom knows how to do Christmas.

This is a woman who never met a Nutcracker she didn't like. Who slapped velvet and candy striping on every flat surface in the house. Who to this day still owns both a hat
and a stocking with my name written in glitter across the cuff. Who invested bundles in those animatronic Santas sipping coffee, Tiggers bouncing on sleds and skeletal white deer grazing on ... is that fake snow?

Growing up amidst all that holiday splendor means that the bar was set pretty high for me as I approached the idea of setting my own family's backdrop for Christmas. Since my taste runs fairly well counter to my mother's in oh, call
it every way imaginable, it wasn't very hard to walk away from the general trappings of Christmas.

(Except for the fake icicles. I don't know if you've ever had the bad fortune of walking past a fake tree that's been bathed in silver strands of metallic-looking tinsel, but let me tell you this--you simply can not escape without a few hangers on clinging, Mission: Impossible-style, to your rear-end. Consider them a souvenir for later, because it will take some sort of reverse ionization process to peel them away from your body. I speak from experience. Thanks to my mom's addiction to fake icicles, I carried a fabric softener sheet with me to school every morning from December first through January sixth until I was in college. My dad taught me how to de-tinsel myself in the school bathroom so that I could hold my head high despite the fact that I most likely smelled like one of my mom's cinnamon room sprays and was wearing a Santa sweater complete with glitter and bells. Not that any of this has shaped how I feel about Christmas or anything.)

love Christmas. Actually, let me narrow that down for you: I love Advent. Advent is a season that I can connect with on a level that so often eludes me when it comes to holy days. Advent centers on waiting for a child. Not just any child, of course, but The Child. The One. The fulfillment of the promise and the prophecy. The Savior. And while I can say that I sit here today waiting on that Savior to come again, I can say even more heartily that yes, I have waited on a child. And I know what that anticipating feels like. I know the quickening in your chest. I know the pain of the days that pass. I know what it is to check and double-check a calendar. To pine. To plan and to hope.

Advent is a season that mothers understand almost too well, isn't it?

Because the focus of my family is on Advent, our decorating centers on that theme as well. Our Advent wreath is a prominent feature of our holiday display. Yes, we have a Christmas tree but no, we do not employ tinsel. We also have a row of stockings that will be growing this year. And, finally, the centerpiece: our nativity scene.

Our nativity was given to us as a wedding gift by my father-in-law's slightly eclectic older sister. As no single set met her strict criteria as to what a nativity should look like, she mixed and matched elements until she got it right in her eyes. As a result, we have a disturbingly anglo-looking Mary fluttering beatific eyelashes in the direction of a preschooler with blond hair who appears to be frolicking in a Montessori-inspired sensory experience that centers on hay. Hovering safely out of view is a supremely country-crafts angel that is made of completely different materials than the rest of the set. She is, we always say, just happy to be there.

I wouldn't trade this set for the world. It is nothing that I would ever pick out on my own, and it couldn't be farther from the slim, glass figures that my mother displayed every year as I was growing up. No, this little hodge podge scene is special. It was hand-picked for us. It's unique. And it's a conversation starter, to be sure.

But it is completely off-limits to my kids. Why? Because it is a one-of-a-kind. Irreplaceable. And not something I want to part with lightly.

This saddens me. If there's one element of my mother's idea of Christmas that I want to preserve in my own traditions it's the sense of approachability that my mother mastered over the years. You see, while I may still cringe at the thought of my mother's outlandish apple garlands circling the entire circumference of the family room, I can still bask in the knowledge of the fact that none of those things that cluttered our home during the month of December were verboten to me. If anything, my mother loved sharing her whimsy with us, encouraging us to come alongside her as she crafted her own ideal winter wonderland. That kind of memory covers a multitude of sins--maybe even the sin of playing Christmas music the day after Halloween. (Well, maybe not.)

I realized that I was falling short in this area when Jo was just a wee one. She was drawn to our nativity set like tinsel to just-pressed wool, and it was all I could do to keep it out of her reach. The thing was, though, I didn't want to keep it out of her reach. I loved the questions that she was inspired to ask. I loved that she wanted to engage in the story of Jesus' birth. But how to compromise?

The answer seemed to come, a decade ago now, in the form of a small, wooden nesting box filled with weeble-like figures representing the nativity story. Each piece was shaped like a tiny bowling pin, all the way down to a bowling pin donkey and a swaddled up Jesus shaped like (you guessed it) a bowling pin. The drawback in this set was its size. The pieces were too small to be handled safely by toddlers (I can't tell you how many times I had to ask visiting two year-old to spit Joseph out of their curious little mouths) and just the right size for losing. We managed to keep the set together but every year, it was a scavenger hunt to locate the missing wise men before the Christmas boxes went back into hibernation.

Having a toddler once again, I knew that I'd once again look forward to helping a little one begin to piece together the miraculous puzzle that is the story of our Savior being born. I was looking forward to acting out the story with Oliver, who loves figures of all sorts and is especially fond of "feeding" any and all characters. But I knew that his tendency to stick things in his mouth would probably keep me from pulling out our little weeble nativity. Who wants to go to the ER to have an X-ray to confirm that your two year-old has a shepherd in his stomach?

Thankfully, in the ten years that have passed since Jo was a toddler, the market for nativities for kids has exploded. A quick on-line search yields offerings from many of the larger toy companies, as well as a smattering of smaller products with specific markets--soft cloth nativities, build-your-own nativity, etc. Who knew?

Most exciting to those of us who are into the hands-on storytelling opportunities provided by a nativity are the nativity playsets. These are actual toys--meant to be played with. I can't tell you what I would have done for such a thing back when Jo was using her Miss Clavel doll to approximate the mother of God. The chance to act out the story, to take a small part in the action, brings children so much closer to understanding what Christmas--and Advent--are all about.

This is Oliver, trying out the Nativity Figurine Set from One 2 Believe. The set comes with 14 PVC figurines, a manger, a palm tree, a hard plastic creche and a small storybook that outlines the basics of the Biblical account of Jesus' birth. This set has become Oliver's number one plaything as of late. He likes to set up all of the figures in a line, or tote them around in a yellow plastic bucket that he seems to always have in hand. The pieces are the perfect size of playing, and seem to be durable enough to withstand some fairly constant wear and tear at the hands of a child who doesn't necessarily understand the meaning of the word "gentle" just yet.

I will say that as a Christ-follower, I am forever flummoxed by the attributes that normally crop up in nativities. Blue eyed Josephs, blond shepherds and what on earth are those wise men doing there?!?! This set stays true to the societal norms and encompasses the usual inaccuracies.

In researching for this review, I found loads of other similar sets--many at comparable or lower prices. While I am not wowed by this particular set, I will say that it seems to offer more pieces (and therefore, more options) than several of the others I saw. This one seems to be geared toward the younger set; several are clearly more life-like, while the facial features and general feel of these figures are cartoonish and playful. Oliver has a particular affection for the two sheep, while the older children are impressed that a camel is included.

Al in all, the set accomplishes exactly what I was looking for: an approachable way to allow my children to participate in the most important part of the Christmas. No tinsel needed!


Happy Elf Mom (Christine) said...

Oliver doesn't eat the set??! Woodjie would eat a few lambies for dessert, that's for sure.

anya* said...

Man, once again I finish reading your post thinking- I wish I knew you in real life! I have had the same off limits approach to nativity scenes and found myself saying no way to much last Christmas. I was resolved to find a kid friendly set this year, especially with so many more fingers wanting to play. Last week I picked up at Target the Playmobile nativity set. It was only 16.99 and the kids have been poring over the box. See, I am a mean mom and will not let the box be opened until the day after Thanksgiving:) So for the next 20 something days they can gaze at cardboard:)...Your set looks pretty great too!

A. Gillispie said...

Now you're talking my language! I actually collect nativity sets and imagine that one day I will have a whole room in our house full of them! We have them from all over the world. We don't "do" Santa at our house but we definitely "do" Nativity. =-) I have some sets that the kids cannot touch (the set made from coconut shells in Haiti comes to mind). One of my favorite sets is the Little People set we got when Taevy was a wee one. It's just so sweet looking and my kids spend hours every Christmas season playing out the story of Christ's birth. You can see it here: They've changed the set a bit since we got ours 6 years ago, but you get the idea.

Anonymous said...

How is it that I even get sucked into reading your reviews? You are too good!