The Tapestry of the Nutcracker and the Nativity

C. E. Umbria

The Tapestry of the Nutcracker and the Nativity

My four-year old quite often eagerly listens to Tchaikovsky while munching on her quesadilla at lunch. We are not a high-brow family. Our girls climb up into deer stands in the fall and all love snagging sunfish from shore in the summer. We did not play classical music for them in the womb. So, what explains this affection? Our girls have been in love with The Nutcracker ever since they were very little. My oldest two have attended this traditional Christmas ballet in fine dresses and sat in the balcony in Decembers past, and they all gather around my laptop to watch renditions of it on YouTube all summer. This intense viewing is often interrupted to practice their own leaps, bounds, and bends in imitation of Russian dancers so far removed in time, geography, and talent. They sometimes dress up and imagine playing certain roles, turning our living room into a stage. This Advent the oldest two will actually perform on stage for the first time in a real production. This has simply intensified their love for the story, the dress, the music, the characters, and the pomp and circumstance surrounding the seasonal performance that has us driving an hour every day this week for rehearsals.  I do not object to their zeal, but rather admire it. Yet I must admit that it remains a partial mystery to me. Maybe a mystery that is not totally foreign to me as I seemed to have been infected with the same strange attraction that draws me back almost every year. 

Even though I was exposed to The Nutcracker from a young age, I still do not understand the full story or what all those mice are up to. This year my second oldest daughter is one of them, so maybe she might have some insight for me. Still, I am also moved by Tchaikovsky's score as well as the graceful movement of those Russian dancers as well as their imperfect miniature imitators. Even as a young boy attending it with my mother, the performance would impress a sense of transcendence on me. A strong suggestion that signaled that everyday life was missing something. Or perhaps I was the one missing what was possible in everyday life. I felt elevated without being able to explain it. Perhaps it was life itself that was elevated in my imagination, made me wonder.

The Nutcracker and the ballet in general seem to be about tapestry; the majesty of making merry, of adorning the ordinary to look extraordinary. Clueless to the story, the tapestry of the ballet infused a dignity to the persons and phenomena portrayed for me. The scene is charming not because it captures extraordinary events (unless you count Clara's dream), but because of the way it crystallizes the splendor of family and friends gathered in a simple manner. If anything, for me, The Nutcracker is about transformation. As a stand-alone-story, I am not sure that it is overly compelling: a family places ornaments on a Christmas tree, the children are presented with some beautiful toys and the less revered Nutcracker. Yet this everyday scene becomes enchanted when it is presented in garlands, glitter, and by an array of beautiful ballerinas. The tree dazzles, the Nutcracker becomes a prince, and Clara's dream world becomes real through all the spins and leaps. The ordinary becomes extraordinary. 

In a similar way, Cora Evans retelling of the Advent story weaves gold from the straw in the stables containing the Christ child. In my last reflection on the Magi from Cora Evans' The Advent Story: The Faith Journey of the Magi I ended by reflecting on the Magi's transformation into "the new Way" that involved a newfound embrace of laughter, joy, and beauty as integral to his love of the Creator by way of His creation and inspired creativity. This theme is persistent.

Throughout her writing we are shown the exquisite concern that God has for material and cultural forms in which the Christ child comes into the world. Rather than the stable where the Messiah was born in a manger being an accidental outcome of there being no room to board in the inn, it is presented as "the providence of God…for it [the inn] would have offered them no privacy at all." While it is true that the Nativity scene serves as a symbol of our Lord's humility, not to be overlooked is that it was portrayed as a pleasant alternative to the inn that was overflowing with animals and people. According to Joseph the "stench was worse than a pigeon, and certainly no place for the King of Kings to be born."

Instead of a false disregard towards the context of Jesus' birth we see that even in these circumstances, that there is supernatural concern for the material adornment and arrangement of the event. Beauty is at the forefront. The material matters and manifests God’s grace. 

The innkeeper's wife, Rachel, who brought Mary to the stable to give birth was captivated by her. "You are beautiful! I've never seen anyone like you." As Mary was praying, "the stable was suddenly filled with Heaven's transcending light." St. Michael the Archangel appears to Mary, and she watches him "unfold the bundle in which were rolled the swaddling clothes." Michael also arranged some tapestry with a "beautiful golden design" that "delighted" Mary and had a "beautiful swirling design" while providing her privacy and separation from the animals who brought her warmth. Michael instructs Mary on how to wrap Jesus in the garments and the new parents were described as “majestically happy in the unique privilege that was theirs - that of dressing the King in His royal robes for the first time on earth.” There is a great continuity here in the glory and magnificence of Mary, St. Michael the Archangel, the tapestry and swaddling clothes, along with the event and the physical world in which the miracle is taking place. The Incarnation is not just a matter of Christ taking flesh, but of redeeming all of Creation and of its proper role as serving to glorify its Creator and honor His Son. 

Near the beginning of John's Gospel- considered to have the most elevated Christology- we have the first glimpse of Jesus' Divinity. Where does it first show itself? Within such a Nutcracker scene as we have already contemplated: Guests gathered in festivity of a cultural and material reality standing in need of transformation. First the water is transformed which leads to the transformation of the vision of Jesus and to those who can see Him for who He is. Yet, it seems suggestive that His first miracle was amid such an ordinary human moment of embarrassment, custom, social expectation and human hopes. Why do these even matter? With the resurrection of the dead, the healing of the blind, and salvation of the world there is a temptation to exclude or dismiss a mundane moment of concern over a drink shortage. The quality matters too. "Who serves the best wine last?" Jesus does. He opens the Gospel with drinks, and He finishes by preparing a shore lunch for the Apostles. I bet it was amazing. In between these stories of hospitality is sandwiched the Eucharistic table, the greatest miracle of all, hidden under the ordinary matter and circumstances of food, drink, and fellowship. In Cora’s Advent Story, we see how much God desires us to use the ordinary for His Glory.