In kindergarten I pressed my open hand into wet plaster on a paper plate and held it until the plaster hardened. Then I painted the mold and pasted a mimeographed poem to the back, completing the gift for Mom: “This is to remind you / when I have grown so tall / that once I was tiny / and my hands were very small.”
Birthdays are usually about getting older, about being seventy or sixteen or five, but every December 25, Jesus is a newborn babe again. Thanks to my mother, my own birthday has always had something of this quality. “Twenty-seven years ago today I was in the hospital with a baby Priscilla,” my mom says over the phone. The number changes each year to match my increasing age, but the memory of joy and grace beyond measure is always the same. Last year she said, “I woke up at three in the morning today and I thought ‘Oh! It was about this time when I was heading to the hospital,’ and I was thinking what a pleasure it was.” And when I was little she always said, “You were my best Christmas present ever.”
Christmas was not a religious holiday for my family. But with my birthday on December 24th and my mom’s on the 26th, it was a big-deal bonanza. At my early parties we played Pin the Nose on Santa. The nose was a cotton ball and Santa a garish commercial image on paperboard with jointed limbs and glitter glued to the white fringes of his hat and suit. My mom made red and green punch from cranberry juice, ginger ale, and lime sherbet and served it in holiday mugs. When we moved from Colorado to Texas and no longer had a chimney, Mom said, in answer to my inquiry, that Santa came in the front door—an obvious lie to this little logician, who knew full well that the door was locked. But the magic was increased for me, not diminished, by the knowledge that it was my mom and not a bunch of elves far away that stayed up late stitching and stuffing the cotton pterodactyl for me (and a triceratops for my sister) and arranging the wrapped boxes under our small potted tree.
As I grew older, my celebration melded completely with our Christmas Eve family dinner. My mom and I took to making an elaborate cake from the cover of the December issue of Bon Appétit, a project which demanded at least a full day and quite a bit of good baking chocolate. My favorite was finished with a smooth dark chocolate glaze over the dense layers of chocolate cake and raspberry cream filling and topped with white and dark chocolate ribbons in a bow.
While people outside my family usually assumed I hated my birthday because I must get fewer presents, I thought I had the best birthday possible—in the middle of all that pleasure, festivity, and togetherness. And the occurrence of my birthday on Christmas Eve felt somehow indicative of my particular specialness. As an adult baptized not long ago and trying to find my own way into Christmas as a religious celebration, I look back to that childhood experience of my own existence as symbolically intertwined with the excitement and importance of Christmas. My mind was not on Jesus, but I felt celebrated—not for anything I’d done or for years accrued, but because, through the labor of one woman, I had come into the world and that was good. How very Christmas-y, in the religious sense, it was. And I realize now that it was also suggestive of something larger: What value could my baptismal vow to seek Christ in every person have if he were not there to be found? And if I accept on faith that he is there, then, just as every Sunday is a little Easter, isn’t every birth a little Christmas, and Christmas everyone’s birthday?
It’s a different sort of birthday, though, one that has nothing to do with our age or doings and everything to do with our being. We celebrate, at least in part, to remember that once Jesus was very small. The Magi brought rich gifts to the stable, but what could the infant Christ give? No pithy wisdom, no parables, no miracles of healing—yet; only, like us, his presence and his need.
Christianity has grown so tall and wide and very messy, we must remember God in the world and in us: new, small, and in need of our care.
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