We’ve had the creche for over thirty years. It has traveled with us, ceramic pieces snugly wrapped in newspaper and stuffed tightly into a box that a boy’s brand new Nikes once came home in. The pieces have been carefully unwrapped, each year, by two sets of boy hands–both sets grown, now, into man hands. The figures have been displayed in six different homes.
There’s a tip of a nose missing on poor Joseph; a few of the animals have dinged horns. I notice, snapping photos, that the ceramic pieces are due for a good soap and hot water soak. But all in all, this nativity scene wears the years remarkably well. It wears the years easily, and it gathers in compatriots. The ceramic figures are joined now by plastic friends, glass friends, friends fashioned of straw and wood. The newest mute witness to baby Jesus’s birth is a hand-carved, wooden dog.
My mother ordered the set for us on a hot August day early in the 1980’s. She was browsing a craft show–an annual event called the Farm Festival– in the town next to the city where I grew up, and she came upon a ceramic artist. Arrested by the artist’s Christmas figures, Mom stopped, and she picked up the pieces, turning them over, lifting the baby from his manger cradle, looking at the faces of the wise men, shepherds, Joseph, and Mary.
It was Mary’s face, she said, that sold her. Some manger scenes had beatific Mary’s, with mature and perfect upturned faces soaking in the grace raining down from heaven. My mother had a different image of Mary–an image of a frightened but awed young woman, a girl, really, of fourteen,who was exhausted by a long, mule-back trip and by the rigors of giving birth.
And yet, still limned with that awe.
This Mary, Mom thought, looked the part, and so she ordered sets for me and my brothers.
The artist delivered them in November or so, and that Christmas, Mark and I set the figures up for the first time, in our first married home.
In those days, we were purists. We set out Mary and Joseph early in December, but we wrapped and hid the baby. He would appear on Christmas morning, a reminder of gifts not so material. The wise men would start their journey to the stable in a far part of the room, and each day, they would inch forward, traversing the mantle over the fireplace, the end tables, the window sills. They would miss the birth of the baby, and arrive at the manger on January 6th, the Feast of Epiphany.
That was the same day we took down the Christmas tree. I felt a little sorry for the wise men, missing all the fun.
But then, the Christmas in the year that my mother died, we set things up, the waiting parents, the hovering shepherds, the empty manger, the distant wise men…we set them up, and then, on Christmas morning, we couldn’t find Jesus.
It seemed like some kind of tiny ceramic tragedy, a meaningful metaphor for where we were–where I was–in life.
“Where’s Jesus????!!!” I demanded of my husband and my stepson, and they frantically searched in drawers and cubbies and the Nike box. But the baby couldn’t be found.
“I can’t find Jesus,” I mourned, not hearing that irony, and then one day, Jesus turned up, wrapped in a humble scrap of newspaper, stuck up on a high shelf, unassuming, tiny, but very, very important.
I marched on past the symbolism of the event. The next year, we welcomed everyone, baby and kings included, to the stable from the very first December day the scene appeared in the living room.
The crowd at the birth has grown.
For many years, every gifting occasion brought me a new Willow Tree angel–angels with books and flowers and pineapples and babies, angels who celebrated hospitality and gardening, reading and motherhood. They were different sizes; they clutched different symbols, but they all eventually made their way to the manger.
They were joined by other angels, gifted or collected, tiny fragile glass angels; angels, woven of some kind of straw, lifting trumpets to heaven; salt glazed angels. The tallest Willow Tree angel looms over her tiniest spun glass sister, but they are a warm and welcoming phalanx, watching over the baby, trumpeting his birth.
On Epiphany, we wrap them up and stow them with their ceramic family to wait for the next year’s Yule. The shoe box, like the feet of the boys who wear the sneakers, has, of necessity, grown.
Jesus’s family is joined now by Pez people, once an essential component of boys’ Christmas stockings. The little, flippy-headed dispensers–Mr and Mrs. Claus, a snowman, an elf–are unlikely companions for the religious ceramic figures. But a young man was insistent one Christmas–“You can’t kick them out!” he pleaded–and since then, Pez joins shepherd; plastic shoulders nudge in, next to a bevy of angels.
A plastic snow man has snuck in, too, one of a set we made from the little drink potion bottles that Jim loved for a while–Mio-type drinks; the kind you squirt into water bottles to change your pure, clear, mountain water into a soft drink. We made enough for a checkers set–Team Snowman against Team Penguin. Only one survived, and he stands guard, now, too, over the baby.
The ceramic core group seems undisturbed. They spread out, open ranks, welcome the visitors. It’s as one would expect, and as it should be.
This year, the newest visitor is a hand-carved Thurber dog–hand-carved by Kim’s father. Kim and I both love James Thurber, and we both love art that is shaped by love and inner vision, and this summer, during a visit, she surprised me with this special gift.
The cherished dog lives on my desk for most of the year, but this Christmas, I could tell, he wanted so much to join the group at the manger. They welcomed him; they made him room right next to where the baby sleeps on his ceramic straw.
Little children, of course, are drawn like magnets to the scene–the breakable figures just the right size for child hands. I spent some years yelling, like a harpy, “PUT JESUS DOWN!” and then I discovered a wonderful little Avon nativity scene, sweet-faced, indestructible little figures, colorful and irresistible to little ones. Those figures joined the scene, mamas and babies getting along just fine, although this year, they found their own stable in a cave made by leaning books on the book shelves. (Some authors say the stable was, really, a cave, and the little plastic people may have been looking, this season, for a stronger sense of authenticity. But they know they’re always welcome at the ceramic family tableau, just the same.)
Some might see our nativity gathering as motley and irreverent; some might see our family that way, too.
But I believe in a baby Jesus with shining eyes and a deep, gurgling laugh. I believe that tired young mother and her stalwart husband must have had elastic senses of humor, humor that stretched to include unforeseen journeys and visitors and outlandish requests. You want me to do WHAT??? Mary asked the angel, laughing. But she did it. Hand in hand with Joseph, a baby nestled in the crook of her other arm, off marched that valiant fourteen-year-old, off to change the fate of mankind.
I think she would have put her arms out and welcomed the stiff, plastic visitors, the whimsical, snuffling, comical hound, the mismatched angels determined to blast out the joy. Mary would have planted a kiss on the broken nose of her husband Joseph.
That was the Mary my mother, years ago, shopping at a craft show in the town of my birth on a hot August day, saw, and that’s the Mary who shares, on the top of my oft-painted living room dresser, the birth of her special boy with all comers.