Thursday, December 20, 2012


A Christmas Story

The old nativity scene we put up on the church lawn was made of white plastic that lit up at night, bright slashes of paint for beards and eyes and hair. The figures — one Mary, one Joseph, one Jesus, two shepherds, one angel, three wise Men, and a camel — had always glowed cheap and cheerful under their straw hutch. And they were light enough that it only took a couple volunteers from the youth group to set them up (and untangle their wires, and enjoy the scene with hot apple cider in little styrofoam cups).

This year, though, the plastic figurines had flickered and then gone dark when we tested them in the church basement. “Well,” the pastor said, placing a hand on Joseph’s shoulder, “we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” He smiled and left in his truck. He returned few hours later, stamping his feet for warmth as he climbed down. “Come help me unload this,” he called, flushed with excitement. “Got these for free. Didn’t even have to dip into the holiday funds.”

There weren’t as many of the new nativity figures, only the Holy Family and the angel (“Don’t know what happened to the shepherds and the Wise Men," he said, "but free is free”). They were made of dark wood and were heavier than they looked — it took two of us to carry the angel alone. The choir director wrinkled her nose as she placed the baby Jesus onto his weathered manger. "I think they’ve molded,” she said.

“Do you?” the pastor said. “I think they smell nice. Spicy, almost.” He pushed Mary into place, and we stepped back to get a good look.

Although they'd seemed standard-sized in the truck bed, the figures and their proportions looked all wrong together in the hutch. Joseph, whose weight had felt staggering as we carried him out onto the grass, looked withered and shrunken, while Mary’s head nearly brushed the roof. And the baby Jesus had apparently been completed in haste, because the swaddling clothes wrapping his disproportionately large body were carved in exquisite detail, but the contours of his sleeping face were rough and muddled — he might have been babbling or he might have been crying. It was the angel, though, that looked the strangest, swaying oddly as she did from her perch above the others, mouth open in song (or, to me, a wordless bellow). They looked like they didn’t belong together anywhere, much less in a small semi-circle on our church lawn. They looked ... old. Angry, even.

“As if they didn’t like each other,” I heard the choir director say, and she laughed, then clapped her hand to her mouth.

In the angel’s outstretched hand I noticed a smudge, and stepped closer. Someone had scratched “Matthew 2:16-18,” into its palm — not the original sculptor; this mark was fresh. Days old, it seemed.

“When Herod saw that he had been tricked,” the pastor said, from memory, “he arose in wrath, and he ordered the murder of all the children in and around Bethlehem who were less than two years of age, according to the words of the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

“Merry Christmas, everyone,” I said.

“Yes, Merry Christmas,” the pastor said. “And I suppose we’re finished here. Thanks, all, for your help!” He walked back to his truck, hands deep in his coat pockets.

That night, I went to bed early, feeling a little under the weather.

And, as I later learned, the choir director and her husband got into a hysterical argument that night that stopped only when she drove to a local motel.

The pastor slept in his car. “I don’t know what it was,” he said the next morning. “I turned the car off, looked at my front door, and just couldn’t go inside. Thought about everyone in the house already, laid out in the dark, and I just couldn’t cross the driveway. Just stretched out in the back and slept there. Wife had a fit when she came out to look for me in the morning and saw me sleeping right there. Couldn’t tell her why. Couldn’t tell myself why, really. Eccentric.” He laughed.

I started using the back entrance to get into the church. I didn’t like looking at the figures, but I liked even less how ridiculous it felt to avoid looking at them on the main walk. But every window in the front office looked out on them, so I spent most days trying to keep from glancing at them anyway. They belonged in the woods, I thought helplessly one morning. They belonged in the hills, near water and rocks; they didn’t belong here, around people, not around people. They didn’t want to be seen, anyone could feel that.

But it was Christmas, and this was a church, and you couldn’t not have a nativity scene.

Christmas came, bringing with it the usual office quarrels and frozen pipes and upset stomachs, and then it was over. And we had always left the nativity scene up for a few days afterward in past years — sometimes until as late as the first week in January — but this time no one seemed to want to waste any time. The day after Christmas, I came into the office to find the pastor already there, pulling off his workboots with a puzzled look on his face.

“I tried moving the darn things last night,” he said as greeting. “Figured I’d get an early start. Don’t know why I didn’t wait until light, cold out there as it is, but I couldn’t move them. Heavier than I remember. Found their balance, too — settled right into the dirt. Near frozen into it.” He showed me his palms, which were white and bleeding. “Managed to pry Jesus out of the manger, though — he’s in the back of the truck now. Might as well get rid of him while I've got it there.” Neither of us said anything about storing the figures in the basement.

“I know it doesn’t look right to split them up like that, but one seemed better than nothing. I’ll come back this afternoon with some of the boys to get the rest.”

“Or with an axe,” I said, and we laughed.

It’s been a full day and night now since he left, and there’s been no sight of him or his truck, from what I can see out the window. I know better than to try to leave even by the back entrance, although a part of me wonders why no one else has come, no one else has even driven by.

The pipes froze again, or the heat was turned off, and I’m aware of how absurd the little nest I’ve made under the desk must look. Thank God there were a few sweaters left in the lost-and-found bin. There’s a bit of food in the cupboards, and I don’t need much light to get by, really. And the manger isn’t empty now. I can see it from my window. I don't know why no one else has come.

Mallory Ortberg is a writer in the Bay Area. She is also the weekend editor at The Gloss.

83 Comments / Post A Comment


It's a Christmelis miracle!

Ahhh I knew where this was going because of who wrote it, but freaked me the fuck out anyway.


@iceberg Right? I KNEW WHERE THIS WAS GOING. And I had to read it anyway. *shudders*


Also, someday, she's going to write something heartwarmingly schmaltzy, just to fuck with us.


@Ophelia the real trick is, we'll be so traumatized waiting for the spooky hook that we'll end up in the same place emotionally

italics intentionally used in tribute.


Ahhh this was so deliciously creepy.


Oh this is so great, in the best kind of Shirley Jackson way.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

This is too close to the heavy, wooden Jesus, Mary and Joseph at my childhood church. They were terrifying. Shivvvvers.


You old spook, you, Melis.



evil melis

wait this is better


The Attic Wife

A ghost story for Christmas! Love it! (And am a little afraid of it.)


@The Attic Wife I always thought Christmas was better for ghost stories than Halloween. The longest night and the death of the old year and all that.


Wow you completely freaked me out. Shivery!

The Dilettantista

I don't get it WHAT HAPPENED. Maybe I don't get it because I am Jewish and I find nativities sort of creepy to begin with? Good story though, very well written.


@The Dilettantista Me neither, and I'm a Cat'lic! WHAT HAPPENED??!


@Mabissa That's the scary part: we don't exactly know what happened. From my reading of the story, these carved wooden figures are malevolent, and they exert a dark and dampening influence on anyone who comes in contact with them. By the end of the story, their evil has either driven everyone away...or killed them all.


@wee_ramekin Ah, thank you!

Barry Grant


I thought that it was the splitting up of the seemingly unmatched creche that brought on the badness. A morality tale?


Ooooh, pleasant chills. Like it.

Oh, squiggles

I watched "Rare Exports" last night. Coupled with this story today, I am in the best Christmas spirit I can possibly be.

This is also why I loved the first episode that featured the weeping angels on Dr. Who. Fucking creepy ass statues. You have to watch them, because you know they are watching you.


@Absurd Bird I thought of the Angels too #onemillionnerdpoints.


@Absurd Bird Rare Exports!! I remember the original film short, but I haven't seen the full movie yet. Was it as great as I expect it to be?


@Scandyhoovian Oh my god, Rare Exports was amazing, go get it immediately.


@Absurd Bird Totes Weeping Angels *shiver*


@SuperGogo Absolutely where my mind went, too!
Don't go to sleep under the desk, Mallory!


This is the first year I've ever noticed that that "Most Wonderful Time of the Year" song has a line about scary ghost stories in it, and I've been WTFing ever since. But no more! I take it back! More Christmas ghost stories!


@TheBelleWitch Well, the whole point of A Christmas Carol is to be "A Ghost Story of Christmas."


@meetapossum Granted, but that's just the one, so the plural is a bit perplexing. Now I've got two though, so I'm good.


@TheBelleWitch It's the most. creepiest time. of the yeeeaaar!


I like it when Christmas is evil, it just feels right.


Oh, bravo. Nicely done!

I love it when ghost stories have aspects of religion in them. I think a lot of the time, religion focuses more on the practice of goodness or striving for good, and we forget that religion is also a way to try to build a structure around evil and fear and explore the dark stuff of existence. There are so many scary and malevolent things that happen in the Bible; it gives me a scary thrill to see how you wove in that passage about Herod.

Also, up until the penultimate paragraph, I definitely thought this was autobiographical.


@wee_ramekin and that is why the end was so creepy! to me.


I've gone to various churches all my life, yet I'm still waiting to meet a pastor who says stuff like “we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” Rev. Melis, where you preachin at??

evil melis

@SuperGogo What church are you going to where nobody knows 1 Corinthians 15:50??


@evil melis Psh. Methodist. They quote Wendell Barry more than the good book.


evil melis - the ghost of Miss Cornelia Bryant?

dracula's ghost

this is like Steve King in his prime! Shining-Era, I mean, the Real Deal! I love it! At first I was like "oh an annoying story about the beauty of christmas and this good ol' fashioned pastor or whatever" and then I was like "OH SHIIIIT"

Have you read M.R. James' short stories? This reminds me of that as well, minus all the vagina terror


@dracula's ghost didn't look at the byline, did you

Heat Signature

Hahaha I thought this was a true story at first and then when I got the end I realized it wasn't...or WAS IT


Escaping my office *holiday party* to take one precious second to check fun things on the internet, and finding this, has been the best holiday present ever. Melis, you never cease to amaze.

I smell burnt toast

Ahhh, the oblivious pastor! People like him in stories are the scariest part.


@I smell burnt toast Best username.


Oh, man, that was so creepy awesome. It would fit in perfectly with Connie Willis's book of science fiction Christmas stories, Miracle. (amazon link) Anyone else read that? Some are delightful fun, others quite dark, all thinky fab.


@sydwi now I want to. Thanks.


@sydwi just requested from library.


@theotherginger Yay! I'm happy to hear that; it's my favorite annual read. And every year, a new story jumps out at me to become a favorite. I hope you enjoy it!

Daisy Razor

This is fabulous. I love me some unresolved creepiness.


I wish I could erase this from my mind so that I could go back and read it anew without knowing what was going to happen. Amazing.

Joan Manriquez@facebook

Very Mists of Avalon!!!


Spooky melis >_>

Moon of My Life

Scary Christmas Things:

Cat named Virtute

Ohhhhh my god, Melis, this was so creepy and amazing! I also thought it was autobiographical at first which made it SO MUCH SCARIER.


Melis R James


How is it that Melis always delivers just what we need?


Oh this is fantastic. Best Christmas story! *shiver*

Nicole Cliffe

I hate you. (Gibbering in corner)


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