I grew up in a very religious Catholic family in Hamilton, Ontario, and it was drilled into us that Christmas was the celebration of Jesus’ birth, not the materialist celebration of Santa Claus and Christmas gifts. My mother used to brag that she never once mentioned Santa to any of her 5 children that we learned of Santa only from other kids. Like any good Catholic family, the real show stopper in our house was not the lights or the tree or the poinsettia. In our house, it was all about the nativity set.
My parents inherited a very old and very large set from my father’s great aunts. It is a real heirloom, made in 1906 in rural Quebec at a time when the province was fervently Catholic. The barn was substantial and most of the statutes stand about 10 inches. Since my mother had 5 children and realized how easily the set could be destroyed, it was never unpacked until quite close to Christmas.
Baby Jesus himself was not unveiled until Christmas Eve. My husband, Mark the accountant, called this the “just in time for Jesus” theory of inventory management.
It was very much emphasized that we “look with our eyes and not with our hands” at the nativity set. Despite the rules, there was still some manhandling and some damage occurred: the cow is without an ear, one angel has half a wing and a shepherd has a chipped nose.
I vividly remember as a child, checking to see if the coast was clear and then sneaking into the living room and playing with the set. I was the one who tried to fly the angel, resulting in probably my first experience with Catholic guilt.
Because of my upbringing, when our three boys came along, I purchased the cheapest nativity set I could find, and they were pretty much given free licensee to play with it. But being boys however, they were much more interested in cars and lego, so the set remained surprisingly unmolested. Eventually some pieces went missing and our cat at the time, who Patrick named Berry after our next neighbor Gary, managed to damage a few figurines as well.
We had a late addition to our family in 2007, a girl we jokingly call Chardonnay. With her birth I decided to buy another nativity set. I kept all the decent pieces from the first one, deciding upon a “more the merrier” approach. After over 2000 years, who can say for sure that there weren’t two cows or four wise men? We even have two Mary’s and why not? Wouldn’t any new mother kill to have a clone available to help out with the midnight feedings?
Even though he was God’s son, I’m sure Jesus went through the usual amount of diapers and Joseph was likely much too busy trying to upgrade their accommodations to help out. My daughter embraced this unusual nativity collection and it became her seasonal “toy” of choice.
I watched as she acted out all kinds of crazy scenes with this merged set. Claire (a.k.a Chardonnay) used to perch baby Jesus (pronounced Geesaw) on the roof of the manger, to be rescued by the flying fairy angels.
Joseph was often cast aside for the more glamorously dressed Wise Men, who competed with each other for the attention of Princess Mary. For unknown reasons, Claire called the other Mary, Felix and that Mary seemed to have a calling as a vet.
I still remember the day, that Mary ditched the Wise Men and was spotted with Joseph riding upside down in the trunk of our Claire’s pink Barbie convertible car. Could reconciliation be in the works? Or perhaps they were victims of a mob hit? We never knew for sure. I know it was all very irreligious but at least Claire was more interested in baby Jesus than Santa Claus when she was very little.
Fast forward to Christmas 2015, the only one my mom—who had lived in Hamilton all her married life—spent in her new Toronto condo. As Claire and I helped unpack the nativity set, my mom encouraged Claire to feed hay to the donkeys and to feel the texture of the velvet dresses on the porcelain angels. Clearly my mother had mellowed, relaxing the protocol that practically required a papal dispensation to merely touch a lowly cow.
I always said that I had no interest inheriting this high maintenance nativity set. Unfortunately, my mother passed away in November, 2016, and when I was packing up my mom’s condo the following month—I pulled the box out of the storage locker—and suddenly I wanted it. My mom was so proud of this set, and even my spotty church attendance was better than that of my siblings, so there was no pushback from the others.
When I was unpacking the locker, I was upset that I didn’t find the manger. It seems like it was one of the few things my mom, a notorious pack rate, seems to have pitched.
I honestly haven’t had the heart to unpack the figurines, so baby Jesus and all the others are all still safely stowed away, which is probably a good thing as we have a wild barn cat who is aptly named Indy. I’m pretty sure we’d have to keep the bubble wrap on the figurines as the cat is a complete menace, and as I write this, he is eying the xmas tree, contemplating ways to climb up. Did someone say that poinsettias are toxic to cats?
So the manger story has come full circle, as suddenly I am the protective one. I think that going forward Christmas won’t be about the tree or the lights, just like my mother before me, it will all about the nativity set. And also the poinsettias.
The photo is my sister Corinne, putting the baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas eve.
For the record, I do like cats. And children.