One of my great joys of the Advent season is to bring up my large box of Christmas decorations from the basement. I don’t unpack ornaments and lights, since I haven’t had a Christmas tree in years. Instead I unpack Mary, Joseph, and Jesus; shepherds, sheep, magi, and donkeys.
I’ve gathered nativity sets from around the world (often courtesy of a local fair trade shop), so the details vary to reflect the culture of the artisan. Maybe the magi bring corn or fish, or, as in a metal screen painting from Haiti, a huge bunch of bananas. The shepherds vary in size, from small children to grown men with beards. The angels stand by or swoop low, some with candles, others with stars.
I’ve looked at many sets over the years and have developed two guidelines for adding to my collection: I do not purchase more than one set from a locale, and the piece needs to have been made in the place where I am. No buying a set in London with “Made in China” on its label, for example.
But last summer I spied a set for which I broke both rules.
I was in Springdale, Utah, in a funky little shop that sold an assortment of religious goods from an assortment of religions. As I strolled amid the icons and incense, I saw a red clay nativity set from Peru. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were all there, but unlike other sets in which the three are sheltered by a wooden barn, in this piece they are held in a pair of hands. The large hands serve as the foundation for the scene, and Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are all lying down—Jesus in the manger, his parents on the hands. An angel stands watch over them all. I knew in an instant I would take it home.
My collection reminds me that the Christian narrative has spread far and wide and that the particular story of the Messiah’s birth has taken on forms that reflect the culture where that story has been told.
But this little set reminds me that the people in the nativity scene itself didn’t know that. They didn’t know about the carols that would be sung, about the “Peanuts” special, about the lights and glitter and Haitian bananas. They knew they were tired, in a sheep pen, with a new baby.
I hope when the shepherds came and told breathlessly of angels in the night sky, these tired people knew about the hands that held them, the hands that would never let them fall, the hands that would lead them home. The hands in which they could lie down and rest.
And I hope we do too.