December 23, 2011

Readers share their favorite Christmas memories

Surprise proves that grace is found where you least expect it

By Kate Duffy Sim (Special to The Criterion)

Grace appears where you least expect it.

I certainly wasn’t looking for it when I made the rounds at the St. Augustine Home for the Aged rummage sale in Indianapolis early this December.

But there among the rubber gloves, sheet sets and mismatched luggage, I was ambushed by grace.

It appeared in the form of a crèche—a Nativity scene—displayed on emerald felt.

It wasn’t the only manger scene for sale that day, but what made me stop—and wipe away an errant, wistful tear—was that this set was identical to the Nativity scene that my family put up every Christmas when I was a child.

Made in Italy half a century ago from a material that seems to be a mixture of paper mâché and clay, the figures are painted in bright colors and in admirable detail.

Kneeling, Mary holds slender hands to her breast, her sky blue robe folding over a pink gown.

Joseph, gray-haired and dressed in brown and purple, is barefoot, supporting himself on one knee with the help of a staff.

Both seem pensive although Mary smiles in quiet joy.

There are three shepherds with adoring expressions.

The three kings are richly gowned, and two have dark complexions.

An angel suspended from a nail blesses the rickety wooden barn that contains the scene.

There are four sheep, a wobbly camel, a cow with horns of twisted wire, a donkey, a dog and a goat.

The jewel of the collection is, of course, the Christ Child, lying on a white drape in his manger of hay, his dreamy face surrounded by sandy curls and a gold halo.

His posture is ironically reminiscent of his impending crucifixion—arms outstretched, one knee raised higher than the other, a loin cloth gathered at one side. But the loin cloth is baby blue, and his knees are painted with rosy highlights.

The entire figure is no more than 3 inches long, 2 inches wide, and no heavier than a walnut.

Every Christmas that I can remember until I was married and left home, it was my “job” to arrange the crèche.

My mother and I would create a different barn every year, usually from a shoe box and salt dough or Popsicle sticks.

But I alone got to decide how the figures would be positioned.

Who was on the right? Mary or Joseph? Who would be closest to the Baby Jesus? The shepherds? The kings? The animals?

Usually, I opted for the animals.

But it didn’t matter where I initially placed them because they moved all during Advent.

My mother wisely knew that these figures were not items for display, but living characters in a child’s mind.

Again and again, I acted out the story from the Gospel of Luke, moving the shepherds and wise men closer and closer to their miraculous discovery.

Sometimes I would place myself in the story and bring “treasures,” usually sequins and shiny buttons from my mother’s sewing box, to place at the feet of the Infant Christ.

Time and six moves took their toll on my family’s Nativity set. Spindly legs snapped off the sheep and the dog, and I had to prop them against the human figures. A decapitated shepherd was made whole again by a necklace of glue. Joseph’s original wire staff disappeared and was replaced with straightened hair pins or paper clips.

By the end of my mother’s life, the set was down to only a few figures—the Holy Family, a shepherd, an angel and a chalky white replacement sheep made in Japan and purchased at Woolworth’s for 25 cents in the 1960s.

But my mother still set them out with her other Christmas decorations, and it gave me a thrill to see them displayed every year in her apartment.

My mother died in November 2009. In all the chaos that came with quickly emptying her apartment before the next month’s rent was due, the Nativity set vanished.

I don’t know if it was accidentally placed in the Goodwill donations pile or thrown out with the empty boxes. I just know that it didn’t come home with me, and I was doubly heartbroken, missing more than my mother that Christmas.

But grace blindsided me at a rummage sale this month, leading me to a duplicate of our original set with 19 pieces all complete and undamaged.

After I dried my eyes, I took out my checkbook.

The “new/old” Nativity set now graces an antique chest next to our Christmas tree. The pieces are, of course, smaller than I remember.

When I was a child, the Baby Jesus figure filled my hand. Now it covers only half of my palm.

But this year, as I carefully, lovingly put the figures into place, I asked myself the same old questions.

Who goes on the right? Mary or Joseph? Who will be closest to the Baby Jesus? The shepherds? The kings? The animals?

I opted for the animals. I was 9 years old again, and filled with the wonder of Christmas and the peace that comes from grace.

(Kate Duffy Sim is a member of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis.)

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