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Weeds: Manger scenes makes the season

The cross is the enduring symbol of Christianity. An open tomb might more accurately represent our faith, since the resurrection was Jesus’ triumph and our salvation. But an open tomb would be difficult to put atop a steeple or wear around your neck.

This time of year, the nativity scene becomes a cherished symbol. Tradition has it that St. Francis created a reenactment of Christmas night after a visit to the Holy Land. He hoped to inspire his followers to worship. I would say he had a good idea there, as it continues to touch us 800 years later.

There are all sorts of manger scenes. There are simple sets, three figures, Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. They range all the way to elaborate sets with shepherds, kings, angels, and animals surrounding the Holy Family. Liberties are taken with the story, such as when the stable is surrounded by snow-laden evergreen trees that never grew in Palestine, not even 2,000 years ago.

When our kids were young, putting up the manger scene was a highlight of Advent. Children clearly enjoy the story of the birth of Jesus. A baby, comforting parents, angels, animals, all of this under a bright star: there are so many things for a child to be drawn to.

We had several different sets. My artistically inclined wife was partial to small, lovely sculpted scenes. Those fit on a shelf or an end table, subtle in their presence. You came across them almost by accident as you moved about the house, a gentle reminder of our dear Savior’s birth.

Then came the Fontanini era in our house. Fontanini is an Italian company known for realistic religious statuary. They’ve been in the business since 1908, creating and selling figures of saints and biblical characters. They are most known for their nativity sets. I suspect they make their profits on families that become mildly addicted to their products.

For about a decade, our Fontanini manger scene kept expanding. Especially Abby loved to play with what became Bethlehem World. She and Pam added people and animals and scenery to our Fontanini set every year, till the Baby Jesus was at the center of an entire corner of our living room.

When little brother Ezra and Abby hit playing-together-age, exciting dramas played out around the manger scene for weeks around Christmas. Many of these adventure stories do not appear in the Gospels, unless you read between the lines or have the imagination of a seven-year old.

Around this time, Abby was a big fan and collector of Pokémon creatures. At some point, the boundary between the Pokémon regions and the City of David blurred. Pikachu, Squirtle, and Mewtwo could regularly be found in and around the stable. The shepherds had to make room for these odd characters. The bright new visitors added color to the brown and gray hued Fontanini figures.

It was harmless fun. I made sure that Jesus was in the manger at the end of the day and that Mary and Joseph returned from whatever adventure they had been on. I’d set Charmander and the rest of the Pokémon gang back a way.

On the topic of the Nativity, I am looking forward to seeing my four-year old grandson Levi in a living Nativity at his church in Rochester this weekend. He has been cast in the role of a sheep. Or a cow. I’m not sure. Either way, I fully expect I will be impressed by his acting skills.

In my own youth, I never moved beyond being a member of the angelic host in Christmas programs. The one time I did get a major part, I was a “boy” of 35.

Abby was born in October of 1991. Back then, Trinity Lutheran Church in Sleepy Eye each year would ask one of their parish families with a baby to portray the Holy Family at Christmas Eve service. Lutherans were not especially fertile in 1991; there were no parish babies. We had (still have) friends at Trinity Lutheran, and some of them asked if we would take that role.

It was a neat honor. I was pleased to be part of some local ecumenism as our little Catholic family shared the beautiful service with our Lutheran friends.

I don’t remember a lot of details now. I remember putting on our costumes. I was chunkier back then, so “free flowing robe” was a good look for me. I think I was in brown and Pam/Mary in blue. Two-month-old Abby was in swaddling cloth, of course. Daughter Anna was ten that year, and it made sense for her to be an angel to complement our manger scene.

When we took our spots in front of the church, I did my best to look reverent and pious. I thought Pam was beautiful, comely, her face framed in cloth. Abby was very good in her role, a mostly sleeping Jesus. Anna the angel was darling as she blessed our scene from the step above.

There were hymns and some readings. It wasn’t terribly long for adults. But it became long for a ten-year-old. Anna started to slump and move from foot to foot. As unlikely as it would have been at the first Christmas night, our angel began to look bored.

Here Joseph began to whisper under his breath, “Anna, stand still!” “Anna, straighten up!” I hoped the worshippers in the front pews didn’t hear me. In typical father-fashion, it probably looked worse to me than others. Some years later, I still tease Anna about that, and she still rolls her eyes at me. We got through it, and it remains one of my favorite Christmas memories.

Whatever form the manger scene takes, living or statuary, it draws us back to that unlikely night, in the hills of Judea. What happened that night changed everything. We’ll never fully comprehend it. In front of the crib, we are children again. Christmas is the beginning of the story that will lead to Calvary and the cross. There will be rejection and suffering along the way, and ultimately redemption. But Christmas night, at the manger, it is simple joy.

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