The Bedlam of Bethlehem

by Charles A. Donovan
Christmas in a big family captures some of the spirit of the first Christmas.

Christmas at “Fifty-Thirty,” our synecdochic name for the three-bedroom brick house at 5030 Relleum Avenue on Cincinnati’s West Side, was an ordinary bedlam. There were ten of us children in that house and two Irish Catholic parents who knew how to make bedlam beautiful.

Christmas, lest we forget, is a family drama. The holy triptych of Madonna and Child, with the stoic (and often omitted) Joseph at their side, is always the epitome of peace. Surreal, ethereal peace. A silent night. But how could it have been? Childbirth in a stable cannot have been like that. A lean-to shaken by the shuffle and cries of beasts, a young woman in the pangs of labor, a man stunned at the turn of events in a life spent making simple things, the wild shadows of animals dancing on rude walls by dim firelight, the commotion of visitors, an exploding star in the night sky.

The first Christmas was obviously a family Christmas: Everything was no longer in its ordered place. The First Family was in Bethlehem for the census-taking. Angels with trumpets were posted on rooftops. A baby occupied a manger (that detail not lost on us children who sometimes slept in unusual spots in their crowded household). Three kings were setting forth from their dominions. And this displacement over all: God incarnate, the creator of the universe, enfleshed, humbled, dependent and yet here, now, fully human, and from the start, adored.

Parents struggle, year in and year out, to communicate to their children the power of this revelation. They fill their house, as Jim and Mary Donovan did, with the music of Christmas, echoing the angelic chorus. They bring gifts, as Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior did, and spread them before their children on Christmas Day to denote not just the good news of the Savior’s birth but the depth of their love for those they bore.

How did they do it? What sacrifices were made, what worries accepted, what fears untold did they carry in their hearts (and bank accounts) to make this overflowing love as real as it could possibly be? Some years those fears were obvious. In 1962, Mary’s parents, Grandpa and Grandma Casey, and Mom’s beloved cousin — our favorite, the joyous and redhaired Margie — dying in quick succession, with Jim out of work and a new baby, their ninth, just arrived. In 1964, ten-year-old Kevin, struck by a car as he playfully hid in a pile of November leaves, blessed to survive, just emerging from a coma. Other Christmases, other job worries amid the long drives and lonely hotel nights of the pharmaceutical salesman. The trials ten children invariably bring — someone sick, here and there someone drunk, cut from a sports team, or wrecking the only car.

Each year, Christmas returned. A tree was found, lights were lit, ornaments were placed, wreaths put up, oyster casserole baked on Christmas eve, eggnog spiked with Jim Beam, toys unwrapped, relatives rediscovered, serving assignments at St. Teresa of Avila completed, tackle football on the living room floor enacted by boys out of school too long. And the music again — the Columbia LPs from those simple years when corporate America packaged Christmas hymns for their customers and millions of Americans thought “diversity” meant listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Leonard Bernstein, and Percy Faith on the same album.

One calls them “simple years,” but how could that have been true, either? It was an exhalation between the wars, the Second World War and the onset of the culture wars. And what could ever be simple about the most complex event in human history, that night 2,000 years ago, celebrated unceasingly after?

This 2013, Mary is gone nearly two decades, Jim nearly one — seeming so long ago, yet so near. We ten are scattered, physically, yes, but more spiritually united than ever. We have just lost beloved cousins Tom and Jim. Sickness is not entirely absent, but its foes are fighting. New families have been birthed, the first marriage in the generation after ours has just happened, the circle of Christmas has widened in God’s provision, and addresses in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Indiana have been added, joyously, to the family tree. And our addresses have been added to theirs.

There are many Christmas days, but just one Christmas. Many fifty-thirties, but just one house and family of faith. Our Christmases are ever new, but they are unchanged as well, because this night is the celebration of what is both perfect and permanent, fallen and raised up, past, present, and future merged and bathed in lux aeterna.

— Charles A. “Chuck” Donovan is the president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

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