By Kathy Berken
Let’s say you found a dirty old orange-and-black Halloween box advertising caramel apples for 59 cents for all 12. You open the box and see a bunch of old Lincoln Logs, paper cut-outs of angels and kings, a plastic star, a tiny plastic baby doll, a dirty-white plastic lamb, two worn-looking plaster sheep and well-worn statues of Mary, Joseph and a shepherd.
What you are looking at is one of my life’s most cherished treasures.
In 1957, when I was 8 years old, we spent that Christmas in our new home. My mom wanted a new Nativity set and I was happy to get our old one, even though it had only Mary, Joseph, a shepherd and two broken sheep. Despite what the Gospel says, this was actually the first time Jesus was lost.
I took all the pieces to my room and laid them out on the dirty cotton batting. I needed to round out this set, or at the very least, find a new Jesus! Surprisingly, I found a very tiny baby doll, sitting with its arms outstretched, wearing only a diaper. I took a lamb from our farm set and a red plastic star ornament from our box. I still wanted an angel, wise men and a stable.
Because my mom saved old used Christmas cards (because who didn’t?), I cut out a red angel, a white angel and a picture of the Three Kings, which were separated on the card, so I just taped them together.
For the stable, Lincoln Logs, of course! I dumped them out on the floor and found a blue-line drawing of a log cabin. I assembled it and carefully placed Mary, Joseph and Jesus in the center. The proportions were just right. The shepherd and sheep stood outside and I leaned the paper wise men against the stable. My dad gave me a small light socket with a brown fabric cord attached to a cardboard tube. A blue Christmas tree bulb fit, so I carefully propped it up by the cardboard so as not to cause a fire. I loved the whole Nativity scene. Besides, I made it myself. What a treasure!
I turned 70 this year and have kept that set in the same Halloween box all these years, carefully assembling it every single Advent: through all my years of school, several moves, raising a family, bouts of cancer and chemo, 10 years at L’Arche in Clinton and three years with the retired nuns while attending grad school.
One busy December at L’Arche, I brought the box to our weekly assistants’ meeting and assembled it there, because, well, tradition. I never saved assembly instructions and, I will admit, it wasn’t until just last year that I successfully put it together on the first try.
Over 62 years I have had to replace a few items. The cotton batting base became a piece of felt and then a Christmas towel. A paper angel disappeared so I dutifully cut out a new one from a Christmas card instead of buying a figurine. Because, tradition. The light socket died decades ago and I replaced it with two vigil lights, but they don’t measure up to the original blue bulb. The few pieces of straw I first used vanished, so many years ago when I asked a farmer friend to bring me few pieces from her barn, she brought in a grocery bag filled with the real thing, smell and all!
Fifteen years ago, I bought a complete 5-inch Fontinini Nativity set and stable that I placed alongside my original set. There is no comparison. The Fontinini display is gorgeous, but my original set is even more beautiful, in the way a mother sees all her children (and grandchildren) as the most beautiful. And precious. And forever embedded in her heart and soul.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota.)