by Paul Catafago
Growing up in Queens, Christmas decorations meant my mother setting up the traditional crèche, the Nativity scene, in our living room. The practice is a popular one amongst Catholics in Mediterranean countries.
Every year around Christmas, the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan features a Neapolitan baroque crèche, a Nativity scene set around a regal tree decorated with lights and angel ornaments. For over 40 years, people have come to see the beautiful tree only to be mesmerized by the figurines of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus as well as the three kings, and the whole town of biblical Bethlehem.
For us, the crèche not only signified Christmas season, but it carried with it the meaning of the importance of Catholic faith in our family, as well as our heritage. My mom would make sure that my two brothers and I knew where the crèche figures and crèche paper had come from. She didn’t buy these things at the local Target or Kmart.
In 1962, when my parents and brothers left Lebanon as political refugees, they left a lot of things behind. But my mom made sure she brought with her the necessary crèche elements that had been her father’s. It was all right that she and my father were going to make a new life in New York, but they weren’t going to do it without the crèche. For my mom, the crèche was a yearly reminder of her extraordinary parents.
My mother’s parents were two people who epitomized the phrase “opposites attract.” My grandfather, born in Syria and an adherent of the Maronite rite, was a stoic man who had once trained to be a Trappist monk only to be rebuffed during his arduous training in Brazil because of a lack of stamina. Upon his return to Lebanon, his parents arranged the marriage to my grandmother. She was Greek Catholic from the biblical southern Lebanese city of Sidon. Gregarious and universally regarded as a bon vivant, she enjoyed playing poker and smoking from a water pipe. While my grandfather was happy in his jasmine garden reading and praying, my grandmother was the life of the party. Eventually, my grandfather became a respected judge in the region and my grandmother founded a charity for needy Muslim and Christian children in Lebanon.
The centerpiece of my grandmother’s charity work was an annual Christmas party which she would organize with her friends, the leaders of the Christian and Muslim communities in Lebanon. This was long before 1975, which would mark the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War. For my grandparents, inter-religious dialogue wasn’t an idea but a lived reality. The highlight of the Christmas parties was my grandfather’s crèche, which he would painstakingly create at the beginning of every Advent season.
So when my parents left Lebanon nearly 50 years ago, my mother was given the crèche by her parents, by that time too elderly to continue the tradition.Every year, my mother would do as her father did, create the crèche from shoeboxes, etc. that when the crèche paper draped over them took the shape of mountains. Though my mother never considered herself an artist, the crèche was her masterpiece.
My father passed away in 1998 at the age of 85. Though greatly saddened by his death, my mom continued her work as an active member of St. Bartholomew’s parish, Elmhurst. Like her mother, my mother was an organizer and our family house became a meeting place for a prayer group. And every year, as Advent began, my mother would bring out the crèche statues and paper and create the Nativity scene as if she was doing it for the first time.
Handed Over Reins
But as the years passed, and with the onset of osteoporosis (she had a matching pair of broken hips) and rheumatoid arthritis, she found the job of creating the crèche increasingly difficult. Last year, as she battled valve disease and anemia, my mom gave the reins of creating the crèche to me and my aunt. While my mom was no longer able to create the crèche, it was done in her spirit, and that of her father’s.
My mother passed away in July of this year. While her loss is greatly felt by our family, because of the legacy of faith she bequeathed us, the sadness we feel is mitigated by the knowledge that she went to heaven. Indeed, I have told friends that if my mother didn’t directly go to heaven, then there is no heaven. At the funeral, the presiding priest began his sermon saying, “We’ve lost a giant.”
My mother was never taller than five-five, yet she was a giant in spirit, a woman who went to church every day until her body no longer allowed it, about five months before she passed.
She was renowned in the parish for her welcoming smile and acts of charity. One of her closest friends recently recounted that she was so charismatic and popular that as soon as morning Mass ended, a line formed of people who wanted to greet my smiling mom. Little did people know that the smile was part of the stoicism my mother inherited from her father.
Many mornings, because of her different ailments, especially the arthritis and osteoporosis, my mother battled great pain. But she would not miss her morning Mass.
This year, I will have the honor of creating the crèche, as my mom did for so many years, and as her father did before her. After nearly 80 years, the paper is so frayed, it was kept together throughout recent years by pins. So maybe this year, I will use new paper but the statues are the same ones my grandfather used in Lebanon so many years ago.
So while others lament that Christmas has become too secular and lost its true meaning (to which I agree), I will be busy engaging in an activity that has much, much meaning. And for that legacy, I can only thank my mom.