The Importance of Material Culture – or a Christmas Story

A snowy woodland scene near Manchester, January 2013.

A snowy woodland scene near Manchester, January 2013.

Archaeology is about the study of the physical remains of the past, and archaeologists can, sometimes, get fixated on the smallest objects and details, whether these be from prehistory or the ‘contemporary past’. So here’s a seasonal story of the hunt for a ritual object; and of course these events are based upon surviving artefactual evidence and oral testimony…

…Elizabeth had been good. This noteworthy event had been caused by her lively, high-spirited, enjoyment of Midnight Mass. Her two adoring parents now watched with delight as she gazed bright-eyed at Baby Jesus, the surrounding crib figures lit by dancing candle-light. Ruffling her head of brown curls mummy and daddy carried Elizabeth to her cot, wished her a merry Christmas, and crept thankfully to bed…but not before mummy had hung up Elizabeth’s and Richard’s stockings, and daddy had made sure that Father Christmas knew where to find them.

It was Richard who discovered the dastardly deed. After giving his parents a much-earned lie-in (this is where the virtue of going to Midnight Mass hides the cunningly disguised parental manipulation of offspring), he was skipping along the landing, bulging stocking swinging from his hands when he stopped, dumbstruck for all of ten seconds. The crib figures were wrapped in the early morning dimness caused by the gloomy Manchester weather, which in honour of Christmas had roused itself to sleet instead of its normal rain. The three shepherds, the ox and the sheep were all new arrivals since last night. There was Joseph bending lovingly towards the Christ Child, and there was Mary kneeling in a relieved fashion by……empty space.

“Mummy, Daddy, Baby Jesus is gone, Baby Jesus is gone!”

came a cry from Richard as he dashed into his parents’ bedroom. Here the scene was one of chaos, with the contents of somebody’s stocking spread across the red duvet and around the bed, whilst a bouncing and grinning Elizabeth was doing her best to awaken Mummy and Daddy. “Dich-had” came the reply from Elizabeth, followed by puzzled looks from mummy and daddy. Even though the news was startling it was a while before the two parents joined their children at the scene of the crime. They gave more than a hint that they would rather be back under a warm duvet, even if that heffalump Elizabeth WAS on top. When they arrived at the scene, the crib figures did indeed look forlorn and lost, for in truth there was no Baby Jesus.

“Of course I put Baby Jesus there last night” replied an annoyed daddy to the sceptical enquiry from a superior mummy.

Although Christmas had been kidnapped by person or persons unknown, with that grim determination displayed by Mancunians under the most trying circumstances, festive preparations went ahead regardless. Presents were unwrapped beneath the Christmas tree in strictly chronological order, well nearly so – since Elizabeth being the youngest and, of course, having the most colourful and numerous parcels, could hardly wait to open hers.

After this ritual Mummy made the kitchen her headquarters and from there directed the search for Baby Jesus – in between cooking the pork and the duck, chopping the vegetables, drinking the second bottle of sparkling wine, and making sure that daddy spent at least one day of the year in a different room.

The search continued for the rest of the day, led by Richard, with occasional prodding from mummy such as,

“Have you looked for baby Jesus yet daddy?”

“Why haven’t you looked for baby Jesus yet daddy?”

And finally,

“I thought I told you to look for baby Jesus!”.

But baby Jesus remained missing, and in the absence of a ransom note, there continued to be room in the stable by the inn.

Elizabeth took no part in the search, preferring to play happily with her presents, wrappings and all, in front of the Christmas tree. This seemed to glitter as the lights caught the silvery decorations of stars, snowflakes, cherubs, and angels, but shook as in a blizzard when Elizabeth tried to take down a decoration in order to show it to mummy in the kitchen.

The first clue was found by Richard: the candle stick from the crib, lying on the floor of the bathroom. The second came when Daddy caught Elizabeth carrying off the Virgin Mary. The key question now was would she talk under interrogation? The carrot and stick approach might work, but all Elizabeth would want to do would be to eat the carrot and play with the stick. Fortunately the testing of Elizabeth’s appetite was saved by the arrival of the Christmas dinner.

Two hours, one broken glass, and four empty plates latter, the family lay scattered about the house, mummy and Elizabeth resting upstairs, daddy and Richard watching a weird programme on the television concerning a strange tale about the wrong trousers. When daddy went upstairs to check upon the sleeping women of the house, and to revel in the quietude he looked at the crib and thought how lonely all the figures looked.

Suddenly he was struck by a thought, and approached the bathroom with mounting excitement. There was nothing unusual apparent. Towels on the floor, Elizabeth’s potty upturned by the loo, Postman Pat in the sink with Noddy. In the bath lay the toy bucket upturned over a pile of boats, flannels, and ducks. Sighing with disappointment daddy picked up the bucket and began to fill it with toys in a vain attempt to feel some virtue on Christmas evening. There it was: a small figure beneath a yellow duck. Gently picking it up between thumb and fore-finger he held it up to the light and the object glistened as water dripped from it. Baby Jesus had been found, Christmas was saved! As the rest of house slept Richard and daddy formed a solemn procession to return the Christ Child to its rightful place in the crib, and once there, even without the candle, the crib seemed vibrant and alive. There really was no room at the inn!

“Bed time Richard!”.

And with that mummy and daddy finally persuaded their eldest to get into his pyjamas, signalling the closing acts of Christmas Day 1993. Soon all would be peace, with the children asleep and mummy and daddy left alone to indulge in that third bottle of sparkling wine, which would almost certainly make the Christmas tree look even more beautiful. Shortly after Richard had climbed the stairs a cry rang out,

“Mummy, Daddy, Baby Jesus is gone, Baby Jesus is gone AGAIN”.

“Elizabeth!!!” cried both mummy and daddy. But Elizabeth herself was fast asleep, an arm wrapped tightly around brown bear and Baby Jesus. She was totally oblivious of her nefarious conduct. After all, although she’d been – almost – a good girl, she had also been a very busy Lizzy…

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