Candles in the windows — check.
Cards sent, mostly — check.
Tree up and decorated — check.
Each year, the familiar to-do’s change just a little. Last year’s sweet potato pie is this year’s lemon pound cake. The Christmas card list expands and contracts. The new kitty needs a catnip mouse under the tree. The Swedish smorgasbord on Christmas Eve suddenly includes a plate of salt-crusted Virginia ham.
And, invariably, some dear ritual gets neglected. Last year, the cheap little dinging angel-go-round candle thingy never made it out of the box. And frankly, no one missed it.
This year, it was the creche. Douglas brought it in from the barn weeks ago, along with the other decorations. Its sturdy cardboard box was clearly labeled: MEXICAN CRECHE — FRAGILE!!!
The box sat, hopeful but unopened, on the table in the front hall as the busy days and evenings rolled away. Finally, two days ago, I carried it back out to the shelf in the loft and stashed it away carefully for another year. I was a little sad about it.
The creche is an artifact of my youth, one of just a few, and I safeguard it tenderly. It came into our family in the late 1950s, when I was a young child. My father’s work had taken us to live in Mexico City. When he died there, suddenly, at the age of 40, the creche was among the pottery, copper ware, and other folk art that came back to the States with my mother, my brother and me.
My memories of our life in Mexico receded quickly — I was just 6 years old when we returned to the US and settled near Washington, D.C. Most of the art work stayed stashed in the attic as our lives moved forward.
But each Christmas season while I was growing up, my mother unpacked the little clay figures of the creche and the memories came flooding back — our gracious, stucco-and-tile house with palms and fig trees in the back yard; Chapultepec Park, where I pedaled my tricycle on the broad, gravel pathways; the weekly produce market where we shopped; the peasant woman who came each day to make fresh, tender tortillas at the end of our driveway under the stern eye of Carmen, our formidable cook.
The fragile, exquistely painted figures of the nativity story emerged from their careful wrappings of excelsior — fine, fragrant, curls of wood used to pad and protect them. Mary, with her white headscarf and a surprising Panama hat, reached out tenderly toward the little baby kicking in the manger. The shepherd dropped to one knee in awe. The kneeling wise man consulted his tiny clay book of prophesies. The richly clothed king proffered a chalice of gold.
But the animals were best: a complacent camel with his legs folded under him, a kneeling ox, a ewe with twin lambs, and a handsome black, bearded goat. All were rendered with the affectionate accuracy of a peasant’s eye, someone who knew and loved all the creatures of the stable.
Over the years, the fragile creche suffered some predictable losses. By the time I was unwrapping the figures with my own young children, the wooden stable itself was gone, and the manger. Everyone’s hands were broken and glued. The baby Jesus’s tiny limbs had snapped off. Joseph had disappeared altogether. The camel’s long neck and folded legs had been repaired so many times it was hard to keep him upright. The wise man’s wee book — so irresistible to little hands — had somehow survived, but with many gluings. The sweet, curling excelsior had been replaced with bubblewrap and packing peanuts.
Still, my small boys felt the power of the creche each time we opened the box and unwrapped the figures. We would talk about the story of the nativity as we placed the battered players in their places. What was the shepherd thinking? Why was the ox kneeling down, and did it hurt his knees? Should the king be placed closer to the manger, or the shepherd? Why did Mary have a hat?
Since it was already so damaged, we put our own stamp on the creche. We used a wooden cigar box for the stable. We brought in angel ornaments from the Christmas tree, and the singing Cinderella mice. How inclusive could we be? Gingerbread men filled in the ranks of the worshippers one year. Then Ninja Turtles, then Transformers. (The hamster turned out to be a bad idea.)
We had fun with it, and imbued it with our own memories.
Now my sons have grown and moved away, as children do. My own life has changed dramatically and I am delighted to be building new Christmas traditions, with Douglas and his family, on the foundations of the old, familiar ones. We have a new baby granddaughter to celebrate our holidays with.
The Mexican creche, steeped in rich memories and still so dear to my heart, won’t see the light of Christmas Day this year — we simply ran out of time. But it’s right out there in the barn, waiting for another Christmas, and a new generation of little eyes and hands and hearts, to tell its old, old story.