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Rebecca Sicree on the Bethlehem Baboon & Other Christmas Traditions
Late one Christmas Eve, as my husband and I surveyed the mountain of presents we needed to wrap, a creaking board told us that we were not alone. Glancing up, I saw three pairs of eyes peering downstairs. I expected groans, of course, when I stomped up the steps and shooed our girls off to bed, but the tears were a surprise. Our oldest daughter Teresa finally told us why they were so upset. They had not been spying on their parents or waiting for Santa, she confessed.
They had been watching for Lizard Man.
The girls had been worried, you see, because our new house did not have a fireplace with a chimney. Instead, it had a Franklin stove with a stovepipe so narrow that Santa could not possibly squeeze through it. (For the record, our last house had not had a fireplace either, and their Christmas presents had always arrived anyway, but logic is little comfort to those below the age of reason.) Their older brother Tom, however, had kindly reassured them that while Santa indeed could not fit through the stovepipe, Lizard Man, being much thinner, could, so he would be bringing their presents instead.
I did not expect Lizard Man to be part of our Christmas celebration.
Nor did I expect the Advent Air Bazooka. Or the Bethlehem Baboon, but they are all as firmly established in our family as cake on birthdays.
I didn’t plan it this way.
I planned beautiful, devout Advent traditions to prepare our family for Christmas. My husband tried to warn me. He reminded me that traditions were things-that-cost-a-lot-of-time-instead-of-a-lot-of-money. He reminded me to keep it simple. He reminded me that we were not the von Trapp family. But even he could not foresee the strange forms some of our family traditions would take.
The Great Candle Competition
G. K. Chesterton called tradition “the democracy of the dead” because it gave “votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.” If he had been blessed with children, he would have learned that the democracy of the dead is often overthrown by the dictatorship of one’s descendents. Live children have a way of overruling dead ancestors. They even overrule their ancestors who are not dead. By the time our tenth child arrived, our Christmas traditions had devolved to resemble the more successful children’s party games, all of which, as my husband is fond of pointing out, involve food, noise, or fire. Preferably all three.
Saying family prayers around an Advent wreath, for example, scores a surprisingly high two out of three for noise and fire. (If you cannot imagine how evening prayers could involve noise, you obviously have never heard our family sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” accompanied by maracas.) Up to the last amen, my children behave reasonably well.
Then we have the Great Candle Competition.
The teenage boys slap the candles out with their bare hands. (They assure me that if you strike fast enough, the wind from your hand blows the flame out before it can burn you. The difference between fast and fast enough is why only teenage boys do this.) Their little brothers squirt the candles out with the holy water bottle.
Their father uses the Air Bazooka.
An Air Bazooka is a plastic cone the size of a butterfly net, with an opening at the smaller end and a membrane across the larger one. If you snap the membrane, you can send a powerful puff of air across an entire room. You can also turn blowing out Advent candles into a marksmanship competition. If Advent candles symbolize Christ as the Light of the World, I worry, sometimes, what the Advent Air Bazooka might symbolize to impressionable little minds. But it does make family prayers very popular in December.
Skirmish at the Inn
Las Posadas, which we celebrate the nine days before Christmas, is also popular with our children, but not, I’m afraid, because of any beautiful symbolism.
It’s popular because of the Bethlehem Baboon.
Las Posadas, or “The Inns,” is the Mexican custom where carolers follow two people dressed as Mary and Joseph from house to house for nine nights, knocking on doors, asking for room and being rejected. At the last house on Christmas Eve, the door opens, and everyone comes in for a bonfire and a fiesta.
I had always thought that this was a beautiful tradition and wanted to imitate it.
“You know,” my husband pointed out, “that people started this custom in places where the houses are close together.”
Yes, I knew.
“And where it is warm in winter.”
Yes, I knew.
“And where it hardly ever rains or snows.”
Yes, I knew. I knew. So I gave up my dreams of a parish procession with a live donkey and decided to have our kids go from room to room inside our house instead.
So after evening prayers we turn off all the lights in the house. We drape baby blankets over the heads of one girl and one boy and give Joseph a glow stick and Mary the hobbyhorse unicorn. (Well, if any mother could ride a unicorn, she could.) Then half the remaining kids scatter behind various doors to be innkeepers, and half trail behind Mary and Joseph, singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
It is at this point that the Bethlehem Baboon appears.
I myself had never heard of the Bethlehem Baboon until I heard screaming during our first Las Posadas. Screaming is not normally part of the tradition. When I ran upstairs, I found that a life-sized stuffed baboon had attacked Mary and Joseph from one of inns, and Mary had retaliated by stabbing the innkeeper in the eye with the glow stick.
“But I was being realistic,” Tom complained, rubbing his eye. “The Romans really did use baboons as watch dogs.”
(This, by the way, is why we use glow sticks for Las Posadas. Or electric candles. Or flashlights. But never real candles. Ever.)
The Blazing Yule Log
The Bethlehem Baboon was restrained for the remainder of Advent. The next year he was replaced by the Bethlehem Coyote, who attacked from Teresa’s inn. The year after that, the Bethlehem Spider, a refugee from the Mirkwood trail at Bilbo’s birthday party back in September, tried to frighten the Holy Family from Maria’s inn.
Some of our innkeepers do knock-knock jokes. Jamie answers his door by saying, “Sorry! We didn’t order any pizza!” Other innkeepers just jump out of their doors in the dark and yell, “Boo!”
“I think,” my husband observed, “that they are confusing this with Halloween.”
“In Mexico,” I informed him, “people dress like devils and taunt Mary and Joseph from the rooftops.”
“I think,” he replied, “I can see how that tradition got started.”
After the last door opens on the last Las Posadas on Christmas Eve, we end, not with a bonfire and a fiesta, but with a nut roll decorated like a Yule log and ablaze with candles. (I tried sparklers once, as the French do, but the sulfurous ash that fell on the icing made it taste faintly of brimstone. Think rotten eggs with sugar.) We sing “Deck the Halls” until we get to the line about “See the blazing Yule before us,” inevitably find we have forgotten the rest of the verse, quit singing, and carve the log.
All told, Las Posadas scores three out of three for food, noise, and fire.
The Great Relay Race
Also on Christmas Eve, we have our most grueling family tradition: the Great Christmas Eve Relay Race, which finishes at our parish’s Children’s Mass at 6:30 in the evening. This is another tradition I never planned. No sane mother would. But we all want our children to volunteer at church, and for large families, the Relay Race is what results. One year we had three singers in the children’s choir (due at 5:45), two shepherds and one sheep in the pageant (due at 6:00), one petition reader (due at 6:00), one altar server (due at 6:15), one pew saver (due at 6:15), and four kids too little to arrive early (due at 6:29). You may have noticed that this adds up to multiple trips to the church and more than ten kids. That is because three kids had multiple roles and not because we borrowed extras for the holidays—no matter what our fellow parishioners might tell you.
After Mass, we used to drive around looking at Christmas lights on the way home. Then we would do Las Posadas for the last time, have the Yule log, read The Night Before Christmas, read The Cajun Night Before Christmas (a terrific book in which St. Nicholas arrives in a skiff pulled by flying alligators), and pack the kids off to bed.
Santa’s Moving House
Until a few years ago, this was all we did on Christmas Eve. But one year we were driving home from Mass, looking at lights as usual, when suddenly Genny cried, “That house is moving!”
She was half right: it was moving, but it wasn’t a house. It was a fire truck, slowly cruising down the street with sirens spinning, and outlined from bumper to bumper with so many Christmas lights that it looked like a connect-the-dots picture, glowing and come to life. People were hopping on and off the truck with candy canes for all the watching children. And up high, waving from the basket on top of the ladder, was Santa Claus himself, obviously giving the reindeer a break while he took a spin with his buddies from the local volunteer fire department.
I wondered if Lizard Man was covering for him.
So every year now we have to drive around looking for Santa. It would be more efficient, I realize, just to find out his route in advance from the fire department, but my husband prefers the thrill of the hunt instead. So we drive all over town, ending up halfway up Mount Nittany, where we stop and scan the streets below for moving houses.
Score three out of three for food, noise, and fire trucks.
The Lord’s Attention-Getters
Whenever I am visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, I realize that I did not understand, ten children ago, how family traditions really worked. You don’t pass on family traditions the way you pass on your heirlooms, hoping that your children won’t break them. You pass them on the way you pass on your genes, realizing that they may combine or disappear or take unexpected forms in each generation.
Very few of our family traditions turned out the way I planned, and some I never planned at all. I realize I will see some of them disappear. But family traditions are the way we celebrate our faith and not our faith itself. If they make us pay attention and remember the great events of our salvation, they have served their purpose. And for young children, lots of food, loud noises, and flashes of fire are sometimes necessary to make them pay attention. God himself has used bread and wine, earthquakes, and thunder and lightning to get our attention. What are these but food, noise, and fire?
They may not have been part of my Christmas plans for my family, but maybe they were part of his. •
Rebecca Sicree writes from Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. She attends Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church in State College, Pennsylvania, with her husband Andrew and their ten children, who take up an entire pew.