Temporary Structures, Tiny Tim’s Tinny Screeching, The Heroism of Live Theater, And An Ill-Considered Llama

The winter after I turned four, the Scientologists set up their first Christmas display on Hollywood Boulevard, a beautifully campy confection with the nondenominational theme “L. Ron Hubbard’s Winter Wonderland.” Santa, the patron saint of Nondenominational Winter, sat on a red velvet throne in front of a backdrop of ice-covered mountains. Over the years the set was upgraded to include a gingerbread break room for Santa and behind it, a two-story painted backdrop of the Hollywood Hills reimagined as an Alpine village, dotted with steep-gabled cottages and covered in snow, all surmounted by the Hollywood Sign.

My parents wouldn’t let me visit Scientology Santa, who handed out free copies of Dianetics along with miniature candy canes. Once at the laundromat, my mother caught me filling out one of those Scientology personality quizzes and reacted like she’d found me playing with a loaded gun.

“I wasn’t going to mail it in,” I protested.

“Still,” she said.

Finally she allowed me to fill in the lengthy quiz (I was very bored at the laundromat) as long as I promised to not put my name or address on it anywhere. “Never give Scientologists any personal information” and especially never give them your home address, or else they’ll show up at your door. We thought of Scientologists as something akin to vampires: never invite them in.

I thought of L. Ron Hubbard’s Winter Wonderland again at this year’s Very Denominational Christmas Creche at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

Every year St. Mark’s sets up a “living creche” on the street corner in front of the sanctuary. A plot about 10 x 15 feet is cordoned off with temporary fencing illuminated with two high-watt work lights and filled with about three inches of petting zoo straw. Every year a different young, kind-faced couple is asked to play the parts of Mary and Joseph; some years, a real baby is found to play the infant Christ, other years, Mary cradles a plastic doll. But the real stars of the show are the rented animals, the full roster of nativity favorites (sheep, donkeys, and goats) as well as, inexplicably, a llama.

In the dim narthex of the church, volunteers stand by with racks of costumes, and any child who comes in can choose to be an angel, a sheep, or a shepherd. Then the children, newly enlisted in Christ’s Great Pageant, descend down the dark church steps and into the bright creche corral, to pet goats and donkeys while the Blessed Virgin sits on a plastic footstool in the halo of a street light. It’s a busy corner across from a fire station and more than one photo-worthy moment has been marred by the red smudge of a speeding engine hovering like an impure thought just behind Mary’s right shoulder. After the children have thoroughly petted all of Christ’s menagerie, they continue into the church courtyard for hot chocolate and dry Episcopal cookies.

If I had to pick one earthly moment to inhabit forever, it would be there and then, watching a toddler dressed as a lamb offering a Lorna Doone shortbread to a rented Christmas donkey.

This year we started another Christmas tradition, taking Beatrice, Arthur, and William to see A Christmas Carol at Glendale Centre Theatre (note, please, the spelling) with our friends Lucas and Veronika and their two daughters. I went to see A Christmas Carol at GCC once before, when a high school friend had a small role in it, and I remembered it ever since as an absolutely masterful production. As an adult, I’d still recognize it as a very good community theater production of A Christmas Carol, which is exactly the tepid praise it sounds to be. Of course, the children LOVED it, every moment, from the blue hologram Marley to Tiny Tim’s shrieking benediction. At one point, the Ghost of Christmas Past stands with Scrooge at his second-story window and, against his fearful protests, she commands him to take her hand and together they will soar above the streets of London. Then they both walk down the staircase, but soaringly, like we wouldn’t notice.

In every stage production, there is at least one moment when something very dumb happens. A screechy mic, a dropped cue, a clumsy bit of stage combat. The entire thing is so fake, so obviously fake and so silly, and once you see it you can’t stop seeing it, the “invisible” wires that aren’t, the fake doors that lead nowhere. To put up such a spectacle — the plastic baby Jesus, the painted Hollywood Alps — requires bravado and immunity from embarrassment and belief. Belief in one’s self, and the good humor of others, in the evident value of salvation or Victorian paternalism or cosmic thetans.

Those of us who celebrate Christmas do this every year — pushing aside the living room furniture, hauling out the decorations, sweeping up the pine needles — not always joyfully but dutifully, or until the duty becomes the joy. We construct a temporary space for believing, however rushed and shoddy, and when you stand back and see it in the right light, it really is pretty convincing.

Writer for Catapult, Longreads, The Awl, The Toast, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, and so on. Owner of After-Party Taxidermy. Working on a book about Halloween.

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