Saturday, January 1, 2011
Our Christmas Creche
When we were growing up, our Christmas tree often went up on December 24rd, just before the day itself, and always came down on January 6th, the Feast of the Magi. My father would choose a five-foot spruce from the grove that marked the boundary of our farm. Once home, he stood the tree in a bucket of wet sand set in the middle of a low wooden platform made from old two-by-fours and plywood, and secured the tree by wires into a corner of our living room. The tangy smell of spruce needles spiced our excitement.
Dad hauled the large box of Christmas decorations up the basement stairs. He pulled out a square green and red checked cloth, snugged one edge close to the base of the tree and draped the rest over the platform. Tangled clusters of lights were unwound and tested. The bulbs were old and soft-nosed. Years of use had worn off bits of paint to reveal tiny filaments blazing through the scratched blue, red, green and yellow glass. The decorations were wrapped in yellowed tissue paper. We children were allowed to help, but only if we were very careful and very quiet. Shiny gold and silver balls threw back contorted images of our faces when we peered at them up close. Bright blue and red metal balls, light as breaths, twirled and sparkled on the tree branches. There were a couple of Nutcracker toy soldiers, smartly decked out in red and black uniforms, some blown glass snowflakes, a dozen twisted strips of shiny tin, and a silver foil garland that zigzagged around the tree. An eight-pointed gold star leaned precariously from the top, lit from behind by a tiny yellow bulb.
Dad went back to the basement, returning with a large flat cardboard box. He placed it carefully on the sofa and lifted the cover. The Christmas creche lay hidden, the plaster statues wrapped in newsprint. My father forbade us to touch them. The creche had been in my mother's family when she was a child. It had survived the ocean crossing when my parents emigrated from Holland in 1950. Dad was determined that the pieces would not fall prey to our clumsy and careless clutches, unlike the blue and white china that had so often slipped from our hands and had soon been replaced by turquoise melmac.
My father unwrapped each statue and wiped away last year's dust with a rag. As each piece was placed under the tree, the Christmas story came to life. Mary knelt beside the manger, her light brown hair partly covered with a cream shawl. Her blue robes were edged in orange, her hands joined in prayer. Joseph knelt across from her, his dull brown robes matching his beard. Close by, a chocolate brown cow and a long-eared black mule stretched their necks toward the manger. A short distance away, two shepherds bent forward, intent on finding out what lay underneath the shocking star. One carried a lamb balanced on his shoulder, the other held a crooked staff in one hand and flung back his dark green cloak with the other. Three curly-haired grey sheep grazed on their tiny grass bases. Far back, half hidden by the drooping branches, the three wise men marched slowly across the cloth desert. Two looked like Bedouin: swarthy faces set off by glittering eyes and pointed black beards, their heads wrapped in crimson turbans, gold rings dangling from their ears. They wore cloaks, short pleated trousers and pointed shoes. One carried an incense burner, the other an urn. The third Magi was dressed in sable robes, a jewelled crown circling his head. Kneeling, he held a box, presumably filled with gold. Trailing the procession was a servant leading our favourite piece, a proud camel bearing a polished saddle.
And in the crib, on a bed of dull ceramic straw, lay baby Jesus, more the size of a four-year old than a newborn infant. His sturdy legs and feet protruded from a short cream tunic with a brown sash. His arms were stretched out, palms up. His dark eyes gazed out of a calm and unsmiling face. Directly above, an angel swung from a low branch and looked down adoringly.
As Dad unwrapped the last of the pieces, my siblings and I fell silent, our wrangling corked for a few moments. One of us stretched out a hand to pet the cow. “Blijf af!” barked my father. “Keep off!”
When he turned his back, we slyly slid a finger along the cloth to touch a sheep. We were sorely tempted to stroke the camel's long brown neck – but that was risking a sharper yell and a clap on the ears. For the moment, it was enough to sit quietly, watching our tall stern father, weary from endless farm chores, adjust the placement of each piece so that it matched a timeless order, the only order in the world for him, the order of his faith.
My father has been dead for more than 20 years, but the creche survives, now part of the Christmas tradition for my brother David and his family. I lingered over it during our visit this year. Mary's lipstick has been refreshed in coral, to match the edge of her orange cloak. One of the Bedouin kings bears a scar around his neck, evidence of vital repair after accidental decapitation. The mule is minus half an ear while the camel stoically endures a hole in its plaster neck. But the Magi's eyes still glitter, and baby Jesus still directs his impassive gaze on the world.