I always put up two creches at Christmas. The one in our family room came from a 1960’s Woolworth’s, where it was displayed in the same aisle as the plastic window candles and aluminum trees. Some of the figures still have price tags on the bottom that say twenty-nine cents. A few of the lambs are amputees and the original cardboard stable has long since disintegrated, but this is the creche I grew up with, and I still cherish its delightful tackiness.
My other creche is a work of art, one of the things I would save if the house was on fire. My grandmother “did ceramics” as it was referred to in those days, and hand-painted each figurine in exquisite detail. She dedicated countless hours of tedious work to create a gift for my grandfather who built the stable. The wooden box he designed is as solid and unblemished today as it was that very first Christmas. Inscribed on the bottom of each piece are their initials, like teenage lovers’ names carved into a tree, “ALD to JDD, 1959.”
On Christmas Eve, I would walk a block down the street to their home, carefully remove the baby Jesus from his bed of tissue paper in a Carolina Soap box, and gently place him in the manger, followed by my grandparents and me standing in front of the fireplace singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” As staunch Episcopalians, we believed in liturgical correctness, so the baby never arrived in the manger before Christmas Eve, and the Magi were always strategically placed, approaching from the east.
After my grandparents passed away, the creche moved to my father’s home. Even in his last years, he insisted that it be retrieved from the cupboard beside the stairs and set up in the same place as its predecessor from the five-and-ten. And when the creche finally came to me, I wept as I placed Mary and Joseph in that simple wooden stable on my grandmother’s desk, now in my own living room.
Every December, when I unwrap each piece, I marvel at the rich purple colors of the kings’ robes, the almost lifelike eyes of the human figures, the wonder on the face of the kneeling shepherd boy who has earned a place of honor inside the stable itself. I run my hands over the texture of the saddle on the camel, the pointed wings of the angel with her “Gloria in Excelsis” banner, the empty indentation of the manger bed, waiting for its holy occupant. I place that same soap box with the words “Baby Jesus” scrawled on the lid in my grandmother’s handwriting, into a cubby of her desk where it waits, like the rest of us, during the dark weeks of Advent.
I picture my grandmother, in her ceramics room filled with paint-spattered card tables, crumpled rags, and brushes soaking in peanut butter jars. I imagine her sitting there in her smock, deciding on the colors, using that miniscule brush to outline the eyes of the figures and the words on the angel’s banner, applying the extra coat of glaze to give a sheen to the animals’ coats. I think of my grandfather, puttering in his basement workshop after a long day of seeing patients, selecting just the right pieces of wood, cutting, and sanding and nailing them together to create a perfect miniature stable. I think of the joy and pride they must have experienced on Christmas Eve 1959, seeing their gift to God and each other, displayed for the first time between two miniature evergreen trees on the mantel above their fireplace.
The people who celebrated Christmas with me as a child are gone now. But in the ritual of the creche, I feel their presence. Their hands guide me as I unfold and smooth the green fabric that goes under the stable, position the light to shine directly down on the manger bed, and make sure the angel is properly anchored on her little hook. In that creche, I smell the pine branches and the wood smoke from the fireplace as I walk into my grandparents’ home on Christmas Eve, wearing my new velvet dress with the pink rose, ready for my first ever midnight mass. I taste the eggnog sprinkled with nutmeg in my grandmother’s antique crystal punch cup. I hear my grandfather’s slightly off-key singing and years later, my dad’s weakened voice on the phone, asking when I’m going to stop by and set up the manger for him.
I spend Christmas Eves now surrounded and loved by other people. People for whom my grandmother’s creche is simply a beautiful decoration. We arrive home from church each year energized by the glorious music and the excitement of Christmas coming once again. We chatter about the service and what time to have dinner the next day, as I pour cups of eggnog spiked with rum and set out plates of homemade cookies.
Before I go to bed, I walk into the darkened living room, lit only by window candles and the lights surrounding the manger. On top of the desk is a picture of my smiling grandparents, standing in front of a Christmas tree, arms tightly clasped around each other’s waists. I still miss them. I close my eyes and thank them for magical childhood Christmases and for teaching me that this creche, made with their own loving hands, is at the center of it all.
I reach into the cubby in the desk and pull out the Carolina Soap box. I remove the baby from its tissue paper womb, and my hands, now speckled with age spots like my grandmother’s, once again place the tiny baby in the manger as I quietly sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”