I have a huge weakness for Nativity sets — I think I probably own three or four of them. It’s the dollhouse effect. You can play with them — I remember as a kid acting our elaborate nativity pageants in the days leading up to Christmas.
Patrick gave me this set when we lived in California. It was the Christmas my friend Deb came to stay with us after her marriage came apart — the Christmas of Mr. Potato Head. She was very frayed around the edges, and Patrick gave her a Mr. Potato Head. The perfect present. She’s having a tough Christmas this year too — so I took a photo of what we’ve come to call “Lou Ferigno Baby Jesus” who has come to save us all with his bulk and his Magic Red Shorts. He’s a very sturdy baby Jesus, this one. I emailed it to her to remind her that even though both our faiths have morphed into something decidedly untraditional, “baby Jesus” is still a source of hope and comfort and faith. Even if it’s just faith that somehow, some way, the current crisis will pass.
Lou Ferigno Baby Jesus has gained some company in the past few years. He’s got the lovely antique Angels my aunt sent me a couple of years ago from the set they all had as children, and many animals that my borrowed kids found when they unpacked all my old dollhouse furniture a couple of years ago. The pig I made in 3rd grade and kept because I loved the texture of the white glaze. I think of him as “marshmallow pig.” And the funny little lead draft horse that I think belonged to my grandmother. The pets from my childhood dollhouse. An elephant that either Patrick or I made as kids. I love the hodgepodge of nativity sets.
When I was little we went to Mass at the local girl’s Catholic high school, which was run by wonderful, loving lefty nuns. Christmas eve was all about the kid’s pageant. While there was always a live pageant, and one year Patrick was a magnificent wise man in a gold wrapping paper turban and a purple velour bathrobe, there was also a procession involving every kid in the church — it must have been during communion, since so many of us were too little to take communion yet. If you were a toddler, you got a china lamb to carry up and put in the manger. If you were a “big kid” you got a lighted taper. There’s still a part of me that thinks Christmas eve smells like the scent of beeswax and singed mink coats. (And then there was the year the poinsiettias on the altar caught fire — but that’s another story. Altar boys in polyester robes stomping out fire! on the altar!)
My mother believed in creativity for kids above all else, and one year we made a nativity set from clay. Somehow the pieces got fired but never glazed, so every year, we’d pull these mysterious terra-cotta lumps out of their packing, and bicker affectionately over which lump represented which character. Although that set has been long lost, it’s still sort of my favorite. For what’s the story all about if not all of us returning to it once a year, mulling it over, thinking about what it means to be young and persecuted and pregnant and homeless? Santa’s all well and good, and I realize not everyone is Christian, but there’s an enduring power to the story of kindness and light during this, the darkest part of the year. So that’s why every year, despite my heartbreak about the Catholic church to which I can no longer belong in good faith, I unpack my nativity set, and arrange all those little figures, who have travelled far to come see the miracle that is Lou Ferigno Baby Jesus.