Wednesday, December 8, 2004

It's Not Christmas Without the Nativity

It is hard to believe the Christmas season is upon us again. Christmas merchandise crowds the aisles of Wal-Mart and festive commercials adorn the media airwaves, but for me, Christmas arrives thanksgiving evening after the last leftovers are eaten and we settle in to set up our family Nativity. Every year as we unwrap our Nativity, I am overwhelmed with memories of Christmas’ past; visions of my childhood, vision of my adulthood, and visions of the many changes that have occurred in my life.

I bought the beginnings of my Nativity just before Christmas in 1980. I had graduated high school the previous May, and I began working in the local Hallmark store. Anne’s Hallmark was a wonderful place to work and I think it is there that I became an obsessive collector. It was really hard to work in such a wonderful place and not fall in love with collectables. I have written of my obsessive collection of Hallmark Christmas ornaments, so this story is about my Nativity…probably my most precious heirloom.

When I began working at Anne’s, I immediately fell in love with Enesco Imports porcelain figurines, which were modeled after Biblical quotes. Precious Moments, and I have trouble calling them anything else, are whimsical children in all arrays of poses. I began to buy a figurine every few weeks and my collection grew to almost 30 in the two years I worked at Anne’s.
If any of you are avid collectors, you’ll know what I mean when I say I began to obsess over the yearly catalog, which would contain a picture of the newest editions to the Precious Moments. I would drool over the catalog and start planning who would join my collection. In the beginning, I bought pieces because I liked them; later I would buy pieces that reminded me of sentimental moments. So, when I first saw the Precious Moments’ Nativity, I couldn’t help but fall in love.

First produced in 1979, Anne’s would not get the nine-piece set until the Christmas of 1980. As soon as I saw the tiny baby Jesus with Mary, Joseph and the little lambs, I placed an order for a set. I saved for three months to have the money to afford my Nativity. By Christmas Eve, I was able to retrieve my Nativity from Anne’s lay-away, and the nine pieces were lovingly arranged on the top of our pie safe. Mary sits on a wooden box, head bowed and one hand reaching out to the baby Jesus. Joseph is standing by her side, his tattered robe covered in patches. The baby Jesus is asleep in the manager and his blanket is covered with the same quilted patches found on his father’s robe. There are four little lambs; three are white and one is black. The black one and one white one are lying down and the other two are standing. There are two shepherds, one with a lamb and one without. I also added in fresh cedar boughs I had cut from the farm, and one pillar candle to serve as the star. The colors of each piece are muted pastels and they are beautiful when reflected in candlelight.

After that first Christmas, I began to added regularly to my Nativity. The next year I bought a little donkey with quilted patches on each flank. He is my favorite of the animal pieces, so cute and frumpy. My parents got me the cow that year for Christmas, and with the exception of one other, are the only two pieces that I have not bought with my own money. The cow has his head turned and there is a tiny bluebird on his back. The Christmas of 1981 was the year of the “controversial” piece to the Nativity. The piece was to be the Star of Bethlehem, but it looked too modern to go with the rest of the pieces. Several family members and I had many discussions over this particular figure. It is an angel holding a flashlight over her head. We thought the flashlight was not the right item for the symbol of the Star, but we I hated to not have a piece to the set. I didn’t until the next Christmas that I needed to add it to my collection, and now I’m glad I did.

In 1982, Amber was celebrating her first Christmas, and I added two new pieces to the Nativity; the resting camel with a patchwork hump and the little goat with his beard and horns. This was also the year that a family member received the most spectacular piece to the Nativity collection, “They followed the Star”. This piece was actually three separate pieces, the three wise men riding camels. The camels, each standing on long, tall legs, tapered down in size, as did their riders. The smallest camel carried a very young wise man that, in turn, was carrying a teddy bear. The middle one was carrying a larger shepherd who was holding a small gold star attached to a stick, which he dangled over his camel like the carrot on a stick. The largest one camel carried the largest shepherd, who had his hands folded in prayer. I was so jealous! I really wanted wise men to complete my Nativity, but I could not afford the three large camels with their wonderful wise men. I also could not afford the three smaller wise men that were also produced that year. These wise men were not riding camels and were about the same size of the shepherds.

The next few years, I didn’t add to the Nativity because I didn’t have the money to spend. But this didn’t damper my love for my collection and I began to display them in a glassed cabinet where I could see them every day. They stayed in this cabinet until my divorce in 1986, when I boxed them away with care and labeled them “Fragile—Do Not Drop!” The next year, with a full-time job and two small children, I used my Christmas money to buy “Tubby” the pig to add to my Nativity. Tubby is so round and squat with his name quilted onto a heart on one side and a brown chicken on his back. Tubby would be the last piece I would buy for the next 10 years.

I quickly learned that children and Precious Moments do not mix. My first causality was my little black lamb, and I didn’t even have children of my own yet. My niece was so enthralled with my Nativity, that in her excitement, she dropped the black lamb and broke his head off. I remember crying so hard, but this was before I had children of my own, and I didn’t realize I would have many more disappointments. I managed to glue his head back on, and now, every year as I unwrap him, I am reminded of the good times I spent with my niece. All three of my own children have broken pieces of my Nativity. Actually, Amber and Marie each broke the same piece at two different times. The both managed to break the halo off the controversial Star of Bethlehem. Now it is firmly attached with super glue. When she was five, Christine broke the blue bird off the cow’s back, and that blue bird has never been found.

Christmas is here again, and gazing at the Nativity brings back the joys and memories of Christmases past. About five years ago, I finally completed my collection when I was able to buy the wonderful wise men riding the camels. For the past 20 years or so, the Nativity has also shared the limelight with Santa’s cookies and milk on Christmas Eve, but as the girls get older, this tradition is fading. Everyone has his or her own memories and traditions related to the holiday season, but to me, it is not Christmas without the Nativity.

© Bobbi Rightmyer, December 2004