I love setting them up. It was one of my favorite traditions as a child. We didn’t have a fancy one. We had plastic figurines, basically white people in period garb with happy or contemplative faces. There were barnyard animals, tall, Anglo-looking wise men, and an angel who had a bummer of a job holding a scroll with “alleluia” written on it for all of eternity.
This was an interactive exhibit. We engaged, hands on, with our nativity figures. Playing theologically fast and loose with the rules, and always fans of the theatrical anachronism, we drove them around in a GI Joe jeep (my little cousin piled in the sheep, and sped “Mary, Joey and the lamps” around the family room). My stepfather made a wooden barn for the figures, and we put Virginia pine straw in it for hay.
For a while, my adult nativity scene was like my childhood one, and my kids also played with it. As the kids got older, I shopped around for a more mature version, but never liked any. I finally bought a Playmobil® version, which seems ridiculous since my children are now 15 and 19. And yet it is available for anyone who comes in wanting to play with it (including me). I put baby Jesus in a safe place until Christmas Eve night, and then we spend an hour hunting through kitchen drawers and holiday containers in search of the tiny plastic baby. The only source of family tension involving my nativity scene obsession is where I stuck the diminuitive Savior of the World during Advent.
What I love about this tradition is that is notably quirky like my family. Even when my childhood seemed stressful and unsettled, at Christmastime I felt grounded with my familiar festive friends, “Mary, Joey and the lamps.”
I’ve learned traditions don’t need to stay exactly the same, or even remotely so, as long as they serve to reconnect us with a time of comfort.
Here’s to a Merry Christmas and driving your Holy Family around in an army jeep or whatever quirky tradition brings comfort. And to me finding plastic baby Jesus, hidden in a safe place, this December 24th.