Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.
It was if not the worst Christmas present I had ever received, easily the tackiest and most senseless. Sticking out of my stocking was the little, crocheted head of a snowman wearing a top-hat, scarf, and an unnerving red smile. When I pulled it out I discovered that the artfully handcrafted snowman’s head was actually just a craftsy wrapper for what I assumed was the actual gift: a lollipop–a type of candy that is hardly worth eating even on normal occasions, and so is certainly a lousy Christmas present, even if it was from my grandmother.
Whether I ate the lollipop or tossed it I can’t remember, but the Frosty-the-Crocheted-Lollipop-Cover-Snowman-Head wasn’t so easy to get rid of. On the one hand, it was even less useful than the candy. At least you could eat the lollipop, but what on earth could you do with a lollipop cover? It wasn’t like I needed to keep a cover around for the next time I got a lollipop, to make sure it was warm or appetizing or something.
On the other hand, even though I could not conceive of any situation in the future when I might want a snowman’s head for a lollipop, it had been handmade by my grandmother for me. How could I toss something that I knew my poor grandmother had worked so hard to make? What got to me was this picture of my grandma sitting in her chair, looking over a pattern for these tacky covers thinking to herself how they would make a good gift for her grandkids.
I did the only thing I could think of; I kept the little head tucked in some drawer until I was confident that my grandma wouldn’t mind if I threw it away–long enough that she would know (if she ever found out) that I valued her kitschy craft. So, the Frosty-the-Crocheted-Lollipop-Cover-Snowman-Head fell into my Christmas-gift purgatory where I worked out my gratitude by keeping gifts around even when they were pretty terrible.
Over the years, my Grandmother Arline gave us kids lots of these ridiculous, gratuitous gifts.
–Decorated kitchen towels that were awful for drying your hands on.
–Intricately crocheted coathanger covers which you forgot about until you took them down to get a shirt.
–Goofy-looking, excessive bathroom towel holders.
–Christmas sweaters with snowmen crocheted to the front–and this was before it was cool to ironically wear corny Christmas sweaters.
But she made many really wonderful things too. For instance, as a high school graduation present, she crocheted each of her grandkids a blanket out of whatever colors we wanted. They were pretty great blankets–warm, comfortable, and nice-looking. There wasn’t really anything tacky about them at all. It’s just that a lot of the other things she made seemed tacky and superfluous.
When my grandmother came to live at a retirement home near my family several years ago, all those kitschy crafts started to trouble me again. She spent so much time decorating things that didn’t need to be decorated, so much thought on embellishing upon ordinary household junk. It was prodigal, gratuitous, unnecessary. But now I guess I think that that was the point.
My Grandmother Arline worked diligently to make the nooks and crannies of our everyday life beautiful. It was often a wanton and absurd pursuit, in a way; no one ever needed a cover for their lollipop or coathanger. But that’s kind of what made it nice. They were excessive. They were beautiful purely for the sake of being beautiful. The objects she embellished upon weren’t worth the effort she put into them, but she did it anyway. And as a result, scattered throughout our house growing up, on the most trivial and ordinary junk one would see my grandmother’s handiwork–prodigal creations of love.
I’m not saying that these crafts were aesthetically pleasing in the ordinary sense. Like I said, a lot of it was pretty tacky. And I’m not trying to suggest that the best way to make the world beautiful and to show our love is to crochet intricate covers for coathangers. But I do think that she understood something about our world that Christians ought to get: it is good to try to make our lives beautiful, even (maybe especially) the ordinary junk in our lives.
We don’t need to justify our work by only caring about the appearance of “important” things–our hair, our clothes, our car, our lawn, our children, our bodies–all existence is God’s creation, and when we linger on any spot to delight and participate in the goodness of its being, we honor God in that place.
Anyway, I loved my grandmother, and I’m going to miss her. I hope I still have that crocheted lollipop cover buried deep in some drawer in my parents’ house, still working out my gratitude for a grandmother who knew that beauty and love are always wanton, always excessive, always gratuitous. And when the Lord resurrects her in that Day, I know she’ll awaken in a resurrected body to a God who delights in excesses, whose love is always gratuitous, who superfluously embellishes upon unworthy and ordinary people like me.
In loving memory of Arline Noble, March 28th, 1920 to September 18th, 2012.
For more on the value of handmade goods, see Citizenship Confusion: Alienation and the Christian Ethic of Shopping at Threadless, Etsy, and Trades of Hope.