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A Nativity Set Brings Back Treasured Christmas Memories - Guideposts
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A Nativity Set Brings Back Treasured Christmas Memories

With her children off to college, a mom finds comfort by setting up the family crèche.

Ansley Dauenhauer sets up her family's nativity scene
Credit: Steve Koss

With Christmas just a few weeks away, it was time to get our family Nativity out of storage. As I opened the top, I was suddenly aware of the quiet. My son, Joseph, was finishing his first semester at college. His older sister, Maddie, was a college senior and getting ready to graduate. Their absence meant I was setting up the Nativity on my own for the first time in years. I winced; it was my tradition with the kids. This year, everything—including Christmas decorations—would be changing.

I unwrapped the first figurine, the camel. I’d intentionally chosen a Nativity set that looked like the delicate porcelain one I’d grown up with. But not so fragile, I thought, turning the resin figure over in my hand. The camel I’d grown up with had tottered to Bethlehem on three legs for as long as I could remember. Who knew which of us girls had broken off the fourth leg?

We joked that it was a Christmas miracle our mother let us play with the figurines. She was a perfectionist who kept everything just so, but come Christmas, she simply repaired what she could and shrugged off the rest. The cow’s nose had been chipped in a long-ago skirmish with a sheep. One of Mary’s hands was gone. Not that those mishaps mattered. Baby Jesus was just as content in his cotton-stuffed matchbook as he’d been in the porcelain manger we’d misplaced.

For me, as a child, the Nativity was the ultimate dollhouse, one so special when my husband, Mark, and I got married, I wanted us to have one just like it—but made of resin, so it was less likely to break.

I unwrapped the cow and greeted it with a moo. Then I freed the sheep and the donkey from their wrappings, lined them up next to the camel and gave them a nod. Baa. Hee-haw. The memories flooded back.

My daughter had inherited my fascination with the Nativity. But while I’d spent hours telling stories with Mary and Joseph, one-year-old Maddie had eyes just for the animals. First she zeroed in on the sheep, making them baa everywhere she went in our apartment. Then she moved on to the other creatures.

She took Cow into the bathtub. Moo! Brought Donkey to bed with her. Hee-haw! Herded the sheep to the table. Baa! All the animals except…“Camel!” I picked up the hump-shaped figure and laughed. Little Maddie hadn’t known what noise a camel made, so she left him behind in the crèche. Until the day Mark demonstrated how camels spit. Maddie’s eyes widened.

After that, Camel had become her favorite. We’d barely get her unbuckled from her stroller after an outing when she’d toddle over to the Nativity and reclaim her camel. Still bundled in her coat, hat and mittens, she’d start spitting. All over the apartment. Actually, anywhere she spotted a camel in a Nativity display, Maddie would spit and burst into giddy laughter. Old Saint Nick couldn’t have made our Christmas any merrier that year.

Now I set the camel beside the others and reached for Baby Jesus. The year her brother was born, Maddie’s fascination with the Nativity took a new turn—now she had her very own “Baby Jesus” to play with.

Our home became the stage for a Nativity play every morning. Mark worked late hours back then, so mornings were his special time with the kids. Maddie always assumed the role of Mary. Mark was Joseph. Baby Joseph played the Christ Child from his bouncy seat. I could still see the procession in my mind now. Maddie “rode” the donkey into the living room—that is, she hobbled in, the tiny donkey tucked between her knees. Mark walked beside her, his head draped with a dish towel.

Once they arrived in Bethlehem, Maddie would produce a baby doll from beneath her shirt. (It was an easy birth.) The doll was immediately tossed aside, and her little brother, chubby legs kicking with excitement, took over as Baby Jesus. The six-inch-tall shepherds and their sheep made their way to the manger from the pasture (the hallway) while the wise men and their camel came from the East (the fireplace), carrying a gift of mince pies, Maddie’s favorite treat. Maddie cried that year when we put the Nativity away.

The next year, to her delight, Maddie was given the role of an angel in our church Christmas pageant. She practiced her part diligently, flapping her wings as she raced from room to room in our apartment, too busy to pay the crèche any attention.

Examining the angel from our Nativity now, I had to agree. No four-year-old would think this resin figure could hold a candle to being on stage. At two, Joseph had certainly agreed. He followed Maddie everywhere, flapping his own imaginary wings.

I thought Joseph might be interested in the hands-on quality of the Nativity set, but his attention remained focused on his sister. For a couple years, Baby Jesus stayed in his manger the whole of Advent. The shepherds didn’t misplace any sheep, and the camel politely refrained from spitting. My son’s indifference made me sad. Even the figures themselves seemed to bear a look of disappointment.

They hadn’t been disappointed for long. When I took the Nativity out of its box the year Joseph was four, his eyes lit up. He spent hours that season in front of the crèche, making up stories just as I had as a child. Well, maybe not exactly like me. In Joseph’s stories, the wise men parachuted into the stable. The sheep slid down the roof, and the angel flew in like Superman to save Baby Jesus. When the kids were in bed, I’d pour myself a glass of wine and hunt down the figures so they’d be ready for the next day’s adventures.

All these years later, as I arranged the traditional biblical tableau—Mary and Joseph at the manger, the wise men approaching from the east, the cow in the straw—I suddenly remembered the long-ago December evening when I found a few unexpected guests in the stable. Bob the Builder and his sidekick Wendy were hanging out with the shepherds. Scoop, a backhoe digger, was near the cow.

I had laughed, set down my wine and removed Bob and his crew. Then a voice sounded behind me.

“No, Mommy, no!” I spun around to find Joseph in his pajamas, looking distressed.“

Oh,” I said airily, “don’t worry. I’m just moving Bob and his friends so Jesus can get a good night’s sleep. You can play with them tomorrow.”

“But Jesus needs Bob and Scoop,” Joseph protested. I must have looked puzzled because he explained, “To keep the stable clean.”

At that moment, I understood how my mom must have felt watching my sisters and me play with our crèche, knowing Jesus had become real to us. I nodded. “You’re right, buddy. He does need them.” I handed the figures back to Joseph, who solemnly returned them to the manger.

Without Bob and Wendy and Scoop, the manger scene now seemed a little empty. A little quiet and sedate without the horse’s whinnies and the camel’s spitting. A lot like our house without the kids. But things never stayed boring in the Nativity for long. Maddie and Joseph would soon be home for Christmas. There would be a flurry of activity and traditions to uphold. Perhaps one day, they would bring others or have children of their own to discover the stable, the animals and the Holy Family for themselves. The Nativity would be waiting.

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