Grandma Bruni lived in a working-class neighborhood in a two-family home that I’d struggle to describe — it was that ordinary, that humble. But it was known for blocks in every direction, at least around this time of year, and not because she went wild with multicolored lights or put one of those sleigh-plus-Santa monstrosities on the roof, the way some Christmas exhibitionists did.
No, it was famous because it was where Jesus was born.
And born. And born. Year after year, decade upon decade, in a ritual as reliable as the sunrise and equally comforting. Presidents came and presidents went. The economy roared; the economy whimpered. Friends moved away, favorite television shows went dark. But I could count on baby Jesus in all his plaster-of-Paris glory.
Grandma, you see, had this beloved crèche, but it wasn’t the kind of miniature tableau that enabled the entire sprawling cast of the Nativity to fit on an end table or a bureau. Hers took up a significant patch of her front lawn in White Plains, New York, and its centerpiece was a big wood shack, the pieces of which were hauled every year from a backyard shed and hammered together so that Mary and Joseph would have somewhere dry to hang out from the end of November until the Big Day.
They and their entourage were more than half life-size. It was as if Grandma had invited a large party of anachronistically dressed dwarfs to camp out in her yard for the holiday season.
But for most of December, something was missing: baby Jesus, who was perhaps three-quarters life-size. He would stay missing — metaphorically in utero, though technically in a bottom drawer of Grandma’s bedroom dresser — until the midnight moment when Christmas Eve became Christmas Day.
Grandma held to this schedule as if historical accuracy depended on it and White Plains occupied the same time zone as Bethlehem of millenniums ago. At 11:58 p.m. on Dec. 24, she’d dim the lights. She’d put on a record of “Silent Night.” And she’d fetch baby Jesus from that drawer, where he lay swaddled in her finest white linens.
Gently cradling him in her arms, she’d walk slowly through the living room, out the front door and over to the shack. Then she’d place him in a manger between Mary and Joseph. And she’d cry, because the moment was an emotional one and, she’d somberly inform us, this Christmas just might be her last. Her talent for pasta was surpassed only by her gift for melodrama.
Religion played a smaller part in her midwifery than you’d think. Grandma was nominally and notionally Roman Catholic and saw the church as the proper, even necessary, setting in which to mark the milestones of a life: birth, marriage, death. But that was as much about continuity — about a predictable rhythm, with reliable ornaments — as it was about creed.
Jesus was a character in a commonly adopted narrative, a lyric in a widely sung song. He was a totem. Above all he was a tradition, and the Nativity scene in front of her house went hand in hand with a Christmas Eve menu of seven fishes, in accordance with Italian-American custom, and with the rule that gift opening started with the youngest of the clan and proceeded upward in accordance with age. Doing things “the right way” grounded her. It was her center of gravity.
She died some three decades ago, and I’ve no idea what happened to that crèche. But I know what happened to the family who found it both bonkers and beautiful, extravagant and essential. In the manner of modern America, we scattered — pulled in this direction by work, in that direction by adventure, our commitments metastasizing, our free time shriveling.
We do better than most at forging moments together, but they’re less and less predictable. Where I could once tell you without hesitation how I’d spent the previous two, three or four Christmas Eves — with Grandma and baby Jesus — I now have to strain to remember. Last year, in a peculiar mood, I went alone to Las Vegas. The year before that? I’m honestly not sure.
That saddens me in ways that it would regardless of what’s happening in this seething country and this fractious world, but current events intensify my appreciation for customs now lost, for touchstones that have crumbled.
We’re at one of those junctures where so little can be taken for granted, so much is up for grabs. The worthiest of values come under fire. The sturdiest of institutions buckle. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding that holidays matter more, as do the familiar scripts and cherished props with which they’re celebrated.
They’re assertions of normalcy amid change and loss. The solace is in the details. Grandma understood this. She had a wisdom as ancient as the birth of baby Jesus.
Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.