If you celebrate Christmas in this part of the world, you probably have boxes. They spend most of the year in the basement or the attic or the cupboard, waiting for their annual re-birth in anticipation of the Holy Birth. Lights (a few burnt out), tree ornaments (do we really have to put that one up again this year?), stockings, Christmas stories, leftover napkins, and decorations are all delivered into the cool light of December.
We have these boxes in our home, of course. But one box is special. One I open only when alone, and free of small helping hands. One I open with trepidation. For it contains the crèche, the Nativity set. And this Nativity set was molded out of ceramic and carefully painted by my in-laws before I was even born. For some reason the task of unpacking it falls to me, and I perform this annual work fully aware of the ramifications of any potential accident.
The Nativity set is a product of its time. The figures are large, ten or twelve inches high. They would not be out of place accompanied by a painting on velvet, with perhaps a hanging spider plant to suggest greenery.
They are beautiful though, and they are certainly treasures. There are the shepherds, draped in drab colours with sheep tucked around them. The wise men are resplendent in ceramic robes of iridescent scarlets and purples, carrying metallic-painted gifts. By tradition, Caspar is African. By accident, he is missing a thumb. The camels of the wise men are truly magnificent, large and haughty beasts with tasseled saddles. There is a stable, made of wood with a straw roof. A cow and a soft-looking gray donkey curl up in a corner. Two small white doves balance in the hay loft. Joseph is too tall to fit inside, and so I place him beside the stable, arm outstretched to show off the new arrival to his visitors. Mary kneels, adoring, behind the manger, in her pale blue robe, looking understandably tired. A disconcertingly blonde and feminine angel can be strung overhead on clear thread, but I usually stick her in the back of the stable to keep her quiet.
And then there is Jesus. He is jubilantly naked, a chubby pink sausage of an infant, and anatomically correct at that. I have considered giving him a blanket, not so much for decency as for warmth, but have thus far refrained.
One year I lost Jesus. I had unpacked all the other figures and lined them up carefully on the mantel. Jesus was missing. I hunted about, edging rapidly toward panic. After twenty minutes or so I unpacked all the tissue paper out of the box again. And there he was, wrapped in bit of old paper. I had literally lost Jesus in the wrapping paper. It was so distressingly obvious, a real live cliché of a metaphor.
Every year I unpack this unlikely cast of characters and place them in awe and certain fear onto the stage of our mantelpiece. It is a spiritual discipline. It is the beginning of the opening of the book of Advent. With the shepherds I creep in trembling wonder around the edges of the darkened stable, smelling the damp straw. The donkey’s fur is rough, and the cow grunts as it dozes. The light of the star overhead pierces gaps where the walls meet the ceiling. The wise men arrive, eager but suddenly awkward before this very human-looking miracle. Mary lifts Jesus out of the manger and lies carefully down with him, and Joseph tries to pile the straw behind them. Mary and Joseph’s dreams are coming true, but it’s not at all like what they had imagined. Jesus is tiny and tired. He takes comfort from his mother, and sleeps, shutting out the overwhelming world. Peace swells and engulfs the stable. The angels, the shepherds, the wise men, the parents, the creatures and I settle down quietly to watch the sleeping baby, wondering what he will do next.