Daily Decoration: the magi

Playmobil figures representing the three kings plus camel surveying a scene dominated by a cardboard shoebox

So here we are. I feel more kinship with the Magi than with anybody else in the nativity set: you spend a long, long time getting anywhere, and you go to the wrong place, and then you finally get there and you’re only just in time, everyone else has packed up and gone home, and you get maybe a day before you get put back in your box and put away. And then you do the whole thing again next year. (I wrote a poem about that a few years ago.)

I was thinking this evening about the gifts that the Magi bring: the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In the primary school nativity plays I participated in they were represented by cardboard boxes covered in shiny paper. It doesn’t go very far in conveying the weight and gleam of gold, the heavy scent of myrrh or frankincense; it doesn’t do much more than the plastic containers the Playmobil figures are carrying.

This Advent I – along with much of the rest of the Church of England, no doubt – read Music of Eternity, a curated and adapted collection of writing by Evelyn Underhill, the twentieth century mystic. I found it, by turns, thought-provoking, gently challenging, and really quite difficult, and at some point it managed to press some buttons which then stayed pressed all the way through Christmas. I’m not sure it was even the fault of the book; it just managed to convey to me the impression that there is a right way and there is a wrong way, and you, not doing it the right way, are doing it the wrong way. And that took me back to all the churches that have not been the right church for me, but which managed to convey me that I was doing it wrong. Whatever it was.

Evelyn Underhill talks a lot about being self-oblivious and, while I know in my head what she was getting at, me attempting to be self-oblivious summons a persona who really shouldn’t be running the show. (The key word here is, of course, attempting, but this was the kind of response that I observed myself having.) She ran it from when I was about fourteen up until my late twenties, and it was very tiring being her. She was always trying to fit in, she was always trying to be right. She was trying to please, she was trying to protect, but the only way she knew how to protect was to suppress (herself and others) and she did as much damaging suppressing as she would have done by leaving people unprotected. And she ran on weapons grade, grudging, effort. She was trying. She really was trying. She was very trying.

One of the most humbling and delightful discoveries of the last decade has been that God isn’t at all interested in her. God is interested in me. And other people have seen through her to me, and liked me. One of the things that I discovered when I stopped putting all my energy into being her was that other people also had trouble with not being XYZ enough, whatever XYZ was for them, and actually admitting to being human and having trouble with stuff was a far better way to make friends than whatever it was I’d been trying before.

The trouble is that when this persona gets hold of an idea like being self-oblivious as something that is desirable to be, and sees the current-me, who has a much better idea of who she is, well, there’s trouble. Because I can’t be doing with her yelling you’re doing it wrong!!!! at me all the time, I haven’t been doing much at all. And probably I should have a conversation with her and see if she wouldn’t rather be off-duty with a pile of comics and a glass of lemonade, because she shouldn’t have had to be on duty all those years, that wasn’t fair, but I’ve only just recognised her modus operandi.

Anyway, she quietened down this evening, maybe just because I went to church. Epiphany. We got there. Just in time. (Metaphorically, that is. Literally I had five minutes to spare.) And I thought about how tactile, how sensory, the gifts of the Magi were. How very material the Incarnation is. That, while I can conceive of a reality that is so real that compared to it flesh and blood is plastic and gold and myrrh are cardboard boxes, I can only get there through this reality. The way in for me is through who I am and through what is there.

Daily Decoration: deer and cheese

Playmobil crib scene in which Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus have been joined by a deer and a fawn with a basket of cheese

This one is going to take a bit of explaining.

You might or might not be familiar with the Christmas carol Past Three A Clock (and a cold frosty morning…) If you are, apologies for the earworm. If not, here’s a video. The tune and the chorus are traditional. The verses, however, were added on at a later date by G. R. Woodward and, while they’re a lovely bit of poetry, I’m not sure that I’d have put some of them quite in the following order.

Hinds o’er the pearly

dewy lawn early

seek the high stranger

laid in the manger.

(Past three a clock, etc)

Cheese from the dairy

bring they for Mary,

And, not for money,

butter and honey…

I assume that the ‘they’ is meant to refer to the dairy workers, perhaps before they get caught up in the Twelve Days of Christmas, but the way it’s written it does look rather like it’s the hinds.

Which when we copped onto this last year meant two things. Firstly, stealing the deer from the royal ice skating Playmobil scene and ordering some Playmobil cheese for them. And secondly, a bred lik poem:

My name is dere

and wen it dawn

and wen the baby

Saviour born

and all the humans

on ther nees

I join them ther

with stolen chees.

Daily Decoration: the Holy Parakeets

Playmobil tree with two parrots and a toucan perched on the branches, in front of a Playmobil Nativity stable.

More Playmobil – and possibly not the last I’ll share, either. These birds are an unofficial addition to the crib scene. They were a present from Anne a few years ago. Because she likes birds. And because Tony likes bad puns, possibly. (I mean, he does. I just don’t know whether the Holy Parakeet one was in play from the start.) I don’t know. Do we need a reason?

As is probably obvious, I don’t have anything terribly clever to say today. I seem to have used up most of my brain doing edits on a short story, and that’s perhaps more than I’d hoped. I had said to the editors that I was aiming to get it back to them before Christmas, but I thought that was optimistic at the time. Now it’s done – and so am I.

But that’s fine. We’re nearly, nearly there.

Daily decoration: crib, waiting

Playmobil stable with ox, doves and a mouse

The crib is out. Half the figures aren’t in it yet, of course: all the humans, and the donkey, camel, and sheep, are dispersed around the bookcases, making their way there at their own pace. The angel and the baby Jesus are still in the box.

Speaking of boxes, that’s a rather ignominious thing the stable is standing on. Normally it goes on top of the piano, but given the cat’s predilection for knocking small objects to the floor and chasing them, it seemed safer to have it in a place that’s harder for her to get at: on top of a box on top of a bookcase between the radio and some greetings cards that really ought to have been recycled by now. As it happens, that shoebox also contains instruments, but it’s small, obnoxious things like sleigh bells and the Otamatone.

There is, of course, an obvious point to be made about the placement of the crib. Not in pride of place, under the glare of the purple lamp, but set back, somewhere safer, more hidden. Somewhere you don’t see it, straight away. Somewhere you have to look for it.

Daily Decoration: St Nicholas

Playmobil figures of an angel with a wide crinoline skirt and floor-length gold wings, and a man with a white beard and red bishop's mitre and robes

I’ve shared these two before, but it is St Nicholas’ day. That isn’t really a thing in my tradition, except insofar as to grump (quietly) about how everyone else is getting Father Christmas wrong: but he’s just familiar enough in his red and white, and just saintly enough with his crook and mitre, to belong there. Maybe I’ll get the angel an umbrella. The nativity scene and the Magi will show up later.

Of course, this inevitably raises questions about how to render other seasonal saints in Playmobil. Saint Lucia, with candles on her head and her eyes on a plate? There are various monks out there, who’d do as St John of the Cross, and young men who could be St John the Evangelist or St Stephen. Perhaps we’d better stop there. Collecting Playmobil babies to play the Holy Innocents would feel distinctly, if illogically, off: why should I baulk at one plastic martyrdom but not another? (But couldn’t I get an Arius for St Nick to clobber?)

Usually these two would be up on top of the piano, but I don’t trust the cat (currently attacking a scrap of red and white brushed cotton plaid) with them, so they’re sheltering on the bookcase. They don’t really have a story. I just wanted to buy a Playmobil St Nicholas.

December Reflections 3: orange

DSC_0198

I bought myself a Playmobil Advent calendar this year, because – I’d had it on my wishlist for ages – and things like this didn’t exist when I was eight – and I wouldn’t have had one even if they had – and it was a fiver cheaper than the last time I looked – and I’m thirty-three and I have a job that pays me money and I can buy frivolous things if I feel like it.

And then it came to Advent, and I opened the first two doors, and put the princess together, and the sledge, and immediately felt massively guilty because – I had bought things I don’t need – and where was I going to put it? – and we have a house inspection on Saturday – and what am I, eight? – and little bits of plastic that will get lost and trodden on.

Then I remembered that sitting in my desk tidy there was this little orange-haired Playmobil doll. I found her on the pavement outside the council offices in Woking years ago, with her broken feet and her scraped face, and picked her up and took her home with me. I hadn’t the heart to throw her away, and I wasn’t sure if anyone else would want her, so she’d been sitting in my desk tidy ever since.

I put her on the sledge, and immediately felt better about the whole thing.

This story doesn’t have a moral. It’s just a picture of the way my head works at the moment: a mixture of guilt and whimsy and sentimentality; of playfulness and prudence and extravagance; of self-consciousness and a resolute refusal to give a damn what anyone else thinks anyway. It says as much about me as anything, I suppose.