One bright Friday morning, about two weeks before Christmas, Sister had proclaimed the
class would get to decorate the classroom to “celebrate Christmas, the birth of Jesus, of Our Lord
and Savior,” she told us with a semblance of a smile. “And I don’t want to see anything about
Santa Claus!” she snarled. Sister handed out assignments for the various parts of the Nativity
scene to her favorite students. Kiss-up, Klara clapped her hands together and tapped her feet up
and down when Sister assigned the most critical mission of bringing Baby Jesus.
The next Monday morning, the excitement in the classroom was as electric as if Santa would
make an appearance. Sister quieted down the excited students and said, “Let’s pray for Jesus to
overlook us while we decorate the classroom for Christmas!” A cheer went up and Sister slapped
her hit stick down on her desk. “Quiet!” she ordered. After the Our Father prayer, Sister added,
“…and help us, dear father, honor the birth of Jesus Christ,” she said, “Class? Let’s begin.”
Everyone scurried up with the things they had brought: a breadbasket as a stand-in for the
manger, a hay-filled wooden fruit crate to house it, different animals to surround it; a tiny
elephant, two palomino foot-high horses, a raccoon hat, a monkey, several teddy bears, and even
a rag doll, which Sister rejected. Joseph and Mary were cheap porcelain figurines about the size
of my largest Hummel, and the three wise men were toy soldiers wrapped in cloth to simulate
robes, and with rags wrapped, turban-like, around their helmets.
Klara had donated a diapered doll with long blonde hair.
Curiosity, I knew, killed cats, and often got me whacked, but I had to know why Klara’s
Jesus doll was wearing a diaper. They said Jesus was God, one of the ‘Holy Trinity,’ so why
would God need to poop, get all messed up? I pondered asking Sister the God/poop proposition,
guaranteeing a whacking, but I had larger issues on my mind.
Sister began in her devout mode. “As Catholics, you must observe holy days of obligation,
feast days,” she said. I had heard about Catholic Feast Days, and I thought it meant we could eat
as much of whatever we wanted. When Sister said, “One of those feast days will occur while you
are on Christmas vacation. On holy days, you must go to Mass, it’s just like Sunday. If you don’t
go to Mass, it’s mortal sin!” she admonished, wagging her hit stick. “The feast of the
Circumcision of Jesus Christ is eight days after the Nativity, that’s Christmas, and the Feast Day
of the Circumcision falls on Tuesday, January first, New Year’s Day,” she explained.
She turned away from the class, and with the tip of her hit stick touching a picture thumb-
tacked to the wooden frame of the blackboard, she said, “This is one of the feast days, a holy day
of obligation.” Sister tapped on the picture. “This painting shows the Circumcision of Christ.”
On the blackboard, she wrote “Feast Day” and “Holy Day of Obligation,” the chalk squeaking,
white dust flying.
I had heard the word “circumcision,” and had an idea that it had something to do with a
boy’s “equipment.” I squinted to see what was happening in the picture, a faded copy of a classic
painting. It portrayed three old men, frowning through scraggly beards, who looked like hobos.
They were all wearing odd headgears. One of them held a short stick, his hand hovering over
baby Jesus’ groin area. The baby’s face was that of a tiny adult and he had a wide, yellow halo
around his head. The men were gathered around the baby and behind one of them, a woman in a
drab robe wearing what looked like a babushka around her head, looked up, hands clasped in
front of her as if she just won a prize.
Sister, with her chin up, said, “Christ is circumcised and is given the name ‘Jesus.’ That was
the name the Angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary to give him, the Son of Gawd,” she said,
raising her eyes heavenward.
I had boxed the poop question for later, but this, I had to get more information on. I raised
my hand. Reluctantly, her head tilted, eyes narrowed, grim faced, Sister Olga stopped and said,
“Yes, Mr. Bradley?” with a decided downbeat.
I slid out of my desk and stood up. “What is the man with the pointy hat doing to the Jesus?”
Sister looked from one side of the room to the other. “Well,” she said, haltingly, looking
down as though the answer might be written on the floor. “This–well, this is a ceremony that,
well–it’s a Jewish custom that all Jewish boy babies have done, to…” She shook her head, once,
“Jesus was Jewish, so this is done to him.”
“I thought he was Catholic?” I protested.
“Well, Mr. Bradley! He was both Catholic and–”
“Yeah, but what is it–what’re they doing to–”
Sister held up her hand and pointed to me, “Don’t you dare interrupt me, you rude boy!
“But what are those guys doing to Jesus?” I persisted.
“Mr. Bradley? Just sit down and be quiet!”
I was still standing, “OK, but if it’s a feast day, can we eat lots of whatever we want on
circumstances day?” I figured this was information that all the kids would want to know!
Sister lowered her head, like an angry bull, and her face, against her stark white habit hood,
was the color of a ripe tomato. She let out her breath in a snort, “You–you little–!” she blurted
out, rushing down the aisle, “heretic!” she screamed as she grabbed my shoulder, dragged me
toward her and slapped my face with her other hand. I pulled back, and she held on to a handful
of my shirt. “You are going up to Mother Superior right now!”
She pushed at me and, with an exaggerated stumble, I clomped up the aisle, as though
drunk. She pushed me out the doorway and up the stairs to Mother Superior’s classroom. Sister
was silent all the way, face twisted in anger and the beads of the rosary clacking, the black cloth
of her habit whooshing. I was reminded of the sounds of a gypsy dancer’s beads from a movie
I stumbled forward into Mother Superior’s eighth-grade classroom. Mother Superior, hit
stick in hand, pointing to a diagramed sentence on the blackboard, stopped speaking as Sister
Olga thrust me, lurching, stumbling forward, up the center aisle between the seventh and eighth
grades. “Get up there!” she said and slapped me on the back of the head. All the students were
looking at me, the girls, mouths open, the boys, smirking.
Sister Olga, in a loud, strained voice, told Mother Superior that I had mocked God again,
making fun of the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, “He called it ‘circumstances day,’” she
blurted out, “Imagine! This boy is a heretic!” I heard some tittering and Mother Superior slapped
her hit stick on the chalk tray, raising a small cloud of white dust. The noise stopped.
“We’ve had just about enough from you, young man!” Mother Superior said as she stepped
over to the rectory door behind her desk and thumped it with her fist. She glared at me, and
Sister Olga slapped me on the back of the head again, eliciting more sniggering from the class.