A Christmas Story

by Mallory Ortberg

The old nativity scene we put up on the church lawn was made of white plastic that lit up at night, bright slashes of paint for beards and eyes and hair. The figures — one Mary, one Joseph, one Jesus, two shepherds, one angel, three wise Men, and a camel — had always glowed cheap and cheerful under their straw hutch. And they were light enough that it only took a couple volunteers from the youth group to set them up (and untangle their wires, and enjoy the scene with hot apple cider in little styrofoam cups).

This year, though, the plastic figurines had flickered and then gone dark when we tested them in the church basement. “Well,” the pastor said, placing a hand on Joseph’s shoulder, “we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” He smiled and left in his truck. He returned few hours later, stamping his feet for warmth as he climbed down. “Come help me unload this,” he called, flushed with excitement. “Got these for free. Didn’t even have to dip into the holiday funds.”

There weren’t as many of the new nativity figures, only the Holy Family and the angel (“Don’t know what happened to the shepherds and the Wise Men,” he said, “but free is free”). They were made of dark wood and were heavier than they looked — it took two of us to carry the angel alone. The choir director wrinkled her nose as she placed the baby Jesus onto his weathered manger. “I think they’ve molded,” she said.

“Do you?” the pastor said. “I think they smell nice. Spicy, almost.” He pushed Mary into place, and we stepped back to get a good look.

Although they’d seemed standard-sized in the truck bed, the figures and their proportions looked all wrong together in the hutch. Joseph, whose weight had felt staggering as we carried him out onto the grass, looked withered and shrunken, while Mary’s head nearly brushed the roof. And the baby Jesus had apparently been completed in haste, because the swaddling clothes wrapping his disproportionately large body were carved in exquisite detail, but the contours of his sleeping face were rough and muddled — he might have been babbling or he might have been crying. It was the angel, though, that looked the strangest, swaying oddly as she did from her perch above the others, mouth open in song (or, to me, a wordless bellow). They looked like they didn’t belong together anywhere, much less in a small semi-circle on our church lawn. They looked … old. Angry, even.

“As if they didn’t like each other,” I heard the choir director say, and she laughed, then clapped her hand to her mouth.

In the angel’s outstretched hand I noticed a smudge, and stepped closer. Someone had scratched “Matthew 2:16–18,” into its palm — not the original sculptor; this mark was fresh. Days old, it seemed.

“When Herod saw that he had been tricked,” the pastor said, from memory, “he arose in wrath, and he ordered the murder of all the children in and around Bethlehem who were less than two years of age, according to the words of the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

“Merry Christmas, everyone,” I said.

“Yes, Merry Christmas,” the pastor said. “And I suppose we’re finished here. Thanks, all, for your help!” He walked back to his truck, hands deep in his coat pockets.

That night, I went to bed early, feeling a little under the weather.

And, as I later learned, the choir director and her husband got into a hysterical argument that night that stopped only when she drove to a local motel.

The pastor slept in his car. “I don’t know what it was,” he said the next morning. “I turned the car off, looked at my front door, and just couldn’t go inside. Thought about everyone in the house already, laid out in the dark, and I just couldn’t cross the driveway. Just stretched out in the back and slept there. Wife had a fit when she came out to look for me in the morning and saw me sleeping right there. Couldn’t tell her why. Couldn’t tell myself why, really. Eccentric.” He laughed.

I started using the back entrance to get into the church. I didn’t like looking at the figures, but I liked even less how ridiculous it felt to avoid looking at them on the main walk. But every window in the front office looked out on them, so I spent most days trying to keep from glancing at them anyway. They belonged in the woods, I thought helplessly one morning. They belonged in the hills, near water and rocks; they didn’t belong here, around people, not around people. They didn’t want to be seen, anyone could feel that.

But it was Christmas, and this was a church, and you couldn’t not have a nativity scene.

Christmas came, bringing with it the usual office quarrels and frozen pipes and upset stomachs, and then it was over. And we had always left the nativity scene up for a few days afterward in past years — sometimes until as late as the first week in January — but this time no one seemed to want to waste any time. The day after Christmas, I came into the office to find the pastor already there, pulling off his workboots with a puzzled look on his face.

“I tried moving the darn things last night,” he said as greeting. “Figured I’d get an early start. Don’t know why I didn’t wait until light, cold out there as it is, but I couldn’t move them. Heavier than I remember. Found their balance, too — settled right into the dirt. Near frozen into it.” He showed me his palms, which were white and bleeding. “Managed to pry Jesus out of the manger, though — he’s in the back of the truck now. Might as well get rid of him while I’ve got it there.” Neither of us said anything about storing the figures in the basement.

“I know it doesn’t look right to split them up like that, but one seemed better than nothing. I’ll come back this afternoon with some of the boys to get the rest.”

“Or with an axe,” I said, and we laughed.

It’s been a full day and night now since he left, and there’s been no sight of him or his truck, from what I can see out the window. I know better than to try to leave even by the back entrance, although a part of me wonders why no one else has come, no one else has even driven by.

The pipes froze again, or the heat was turned off, and I’m aware of how absurd the little nest I’ve made under the desk must look. Thank God there were a few sweaters left in the lost-and-found bin. There’s a bit of food in the cupboards, and I don’t need much light to get by, really. And the manger isn’t empty now. I can see it from my window. I don’t know why no one else has come.

Mallory Ortberg is a writer in the Bay Area. She is also the weekend editor at The Gloss.