Salty Words

The Crèche

Mama’s philosophy on the Holy Nativity was “more is better”

By Nan Graham

The Christmas season was officially upon us when the stable and Nativity figures were unwrapped and carefully arranged on the sheet beneath the decorated cedar tree. The crèche was one instance where Mama’s “more is better” policy did not serve her well. The stable held the papier-mâché Holy Family . . . and then some. Mama always liked to add a figure to the scene if she saw one at Woolworth’s that she couldn’t resist: another Wise Man with an especially exotic turban, or an appealing shepherd carrying his tiny metal crook in one hand while shielding his eyes with the other.

One year somehow there was an extra Joseph. Both men were solemn: one in gray robes, looking downward; the other in green, gazing at the middle distance Neither carried identification — no shepherd’s crook or rich gift box of frankincense. Was the gray one looking at the manger, or was the green one side-glancing at Mary? One was an impostor, but which one? The final decision: The contender in gray was banished to the outer edge of the scene to join the flock of shepherds, not return to the inner stable tableau.

Once set up, the scene was startling: Wise Men, at least a baker’s dozen of them, joined by standing and seated camels, approached from the right, bearing an assortment of gifts. A mob of shepherds, some with crooks, some without, a few with lambs slung over their shoulders (like tennis sweaters, I always thought), accompanied by sheep striding, grazing, and lambs couchant, all crowded in from the left and trailed by a German shepherd dog, despite its absence from St. Luke’s account of the Holy Night.

On top of the stable: an angel, arms and wings outspread, a golden banner across its chest, a bemused expression on its face as it surveyed the sight below.

In the stable amid donkeys, cows, calves and goats were those whom the Wise Men and shepherds had come to see: Baby Jesus, Joseph and two Marys bending toward the baby.

One of the Marys had a poorly painted eye; the black paint ran down on her left cheek like ancient mascara. Mama had been unable to part with this second Mary, despite her more presentable replacement. So the extra woman still stood in the stable, quietly looking on. The scene was overpowering in the sheer numbers of the cast of characters. Mama made Cecil B. DeMille look like a piker.

It was a formidable vision of the biblical drama spread beneath that Christmas cedar, the real reason we have this season at all.

This childhood memory floods my soul every year when I unwrap those Nativity figures, especially the second Mary, who gathers with all the rest to see in their midst . . . the baby, the Christ Child.

Nan Graham is a regular Salt contributor and has been a local NPR commentator since 1995.

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