Awaiting a Manger

The Cast: My family and Jesus Christ.

For as long as I can remember the tradition of placing the Christ child in the manger on Christmas Eve has always been there. It was what my family always did. Now, if you have been following my blog—recently or otherwise—you will have noticed the adventures of my family’s Wisemen as they journey across my front room. This is a tradition that my mother told my siblings and I about, but we never did it in my childhood home. Well, not really.

There was a year or two that we tried it out. The camel and two wisemen were set off to one side of Joseph, Mary, and the empty manger. The wisemen and camel didn’t stay there long. They moved over pretty quickly because… Honestly, I’m not sure why. What I do know is that the attempts at the traveling trio of two wisemen and camel were only attempted one or two years. Oh well.

Yes, you read it correctly, I mentioned only two wisemen. We only had two wisemen—sort of. There were three, except one of them took over for Joseph. It became difficult to remember which one was the new Joseph. I feel like I’m getting slightly ahead of myself. Let me back up.

One of my favorite childhood Christmas decorations was our Manger Display. It was massive. The Camel was about 18 inches tall and about 12 inches long, from nose to bum. It was the largest piece. The figures weren’t exactly to scale (relative to the camel), but they were close. They were pretty on par with each other. Regardless, all the pieces for our Manger Scene were large and fragile. They were ceramic.

My mother and father, when first wed, had used molds that you pour clay into so that they could have a manger display of their own that meant something special. The fact that the pieces were so large I am positive had something to do with my mother’s Latin roots of traveling wisemen (it’s a thing). I could be wrong. It doesn’t change a thing, but I could be wrong. Our manger set was massive. At one point we had Joseph, Mary, three wisemen, two camels (one standing, one sitting), a donkey, the manger, and a baby Jesus. We may have had more but I don’t recall what they would have been.

Over the years, we lost a member of the crew—or two. I never recall seeing the donkey. What the sitting camel looked like is very fuzzy in my memory. I would almost assume it is a false memory. Still, how would I know what it looked like if I hadn’t seen it at least once? Regardless, when I was somewhere in the age range of 8–10, Joseph didn’t survive storage. That year he was replaced by one of the wisemen. This guy was kneeling down on one knee and just reveling in the glory of the Christ child. For a while, it really confused me as to why ‘Jospeh’ had better clothes than Mary. I needed a refresher for a few years.

One of the aspects that I loved most about this display was the coloring of the figures. It was a dark brown glaze. Upon reading my description, the color sounds awful. It might better be described as an ox-blood coloring. Dark brownish-red. Where the glaze seeped into the cracks it was darker—as ceramic glazes can do. On the larger, flatter, surfaces, the color was more red than brown. I thought they looked like ancient artifacts. They just captured my attention, always. When unpacking them, I would often take forever, due to the fact that I would just hold each one and look it over carefully. The details on them were amazing. Their size… They were just magical to me.

Baby Jesus had broken arms. Yup. Arms. Plural. Both of them. Multiple times. Tragic.

Again, if you have followed my blog, you would know that one of the key components of the Latin tradition is to have baby Jesus placed in the manger on Christmas Eve. So, a key component of a manger set is to have a baby that is not a part of the manger. Most nativities that I have seen are not like this. It took my wife and me several years to find the Playmobil set that we now use. We weren’t even looking for a toy nativity. We were just looking for a set where baby Jesus was separate from his manger-crib. Then, one day at Target, there it was. Still, my childhood nativity has never left my thoughts.

Back to the broken arm thing…

The baby Jesus figurine had his arms outstretched as part of his pose. Thus, the increased ability to have them… well… snap off. They were superglued repeatedly. Any little bits that could be put back (to help cover up the now exposed white ceramic under color) were also glued into place. What does this have to do with anything besides Christmas? you may ask. Good question.

The other day I heard, over the radio, an announcer recalling his childhood nativity. For reasons I do not know, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the memories of the most tragic Christmas Eve I can recall. Like all good story beginnings, it was a long time ago…

We had moved to Manti only a few years before. Due to life being life, this was a Christmas we had been waiting for. All six of us were home, together again, to celebrate. The eve had come and our traditions of making the Christmas casserole, eating green pancakes with red syrup, reading of scripture and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and the obligatory opening of one present, had all been completed. There was only one thing left to do: Place the Christ Child in his manger.

It was a rotational activity. In other words, we took turns. I don’t remember whose turn it was for certain, but, what I do recall is the palpable electric energy filling the room from all of us excitedly waiting for mom to pull Christ out of whatever hiding spot she had kept him in that year, to hand over to whomever’s turn it was. Then, the big reveal came, “I can’t find him. I lost the baby Jesus.”

My mother is no shrinking violet. She is a force to be reckoned with. Yet, here she was, sheepishly folding in on herself. Too embarrassed and afraid to mention this earlier. She was concerned that the missing Christ child would ruin the entirety of the evening.

We assailed her with questions as to where she thought she last hid it, or where her normal hiding spot was. Queries of that nature. She would clarify that it wasn’t that she forgot where she had placed him, it was that she couldn’t find him in storage. He never made it out of the box. She had been looking and relooking for the entire month. She had been so distressed that she didn’t know what to do.

“To the basement!” Someone shouted. At that, all four children, our ages ranging from early teens to early twenties, dashed off to the basement to root through the box that we kept our nativity in, in the hopes of uncovering the lost child.

The box was quickly located. Those figurines had resided inside the same box for ten months out of the year for almost twenty years. We all knew what it looked like.

Each piece of packing paper was delicately, individually removed from the box, and searched. We didn’t wish to accidentally have baby Jesus fall out and onto the cement floor only shatter to bits moments before he would arrive once again. The going was slow and methodical. Nothing was discovered. It didn’t make sense. We always packed Jesus with his family. Where could he have gone?

“Search the other Christmas boxes!” Came the newest command. Christ must be found or nobody slept! We all were in this to the bitter end. The two oldest siblings began to dig into other holiday storage containers in hopes of revealing the hiding place of Jesus. Myself and my immediate older sister re-searched the original box.

My mother was almost crying because she hadn’t realized how much this really meant to us all. She figured we would just be disappointed and move on, never having Christ at Christmas again. Looking back on it, I don’t think we fully understood how important it was to us until that night.

“FOUND HIM!” Another, ‘can’t quite recall who’ moment. It may have been me. Baby Jesus had just been extra swaddled in some of the packing paper. Easy to understand how he got missed again, and again, and again.

The ceramic infant was handed over to the sister who helped me, it was her turn that year (I’m pretty certain). Christ came, once again.

I have never seen a nativity like the one I was raised with, until recently. The set was much smaller. The tallest figure was only four inches tall (the camel). Also, baby Jesus couldn’t be removed from his manger. And, they were glazed with white. Still, the poses and details of all the figures were exactly the same. I knew it in an instant. I’m not going to lie, I got a little weepy seeing it. Seeing them all together again, for the first time, in over a decade. Even if it was on a much smaller scale.

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