“Don’t touch the Baby Jesus!” As soon as the words left my mouth, I regretted them. I had just entered our living room to find my two-year standing before the table where our porcelain nativity set was displayed. I’d chosen to arrange it on the sofa table because I thought it was too high for her to reach. My mistake. She clutched a sheep and a cow in one chubby fist. A shepherd was imprisoned in the other.
The nativity set was a wedding present. Its blue and white figures were as lovely as they were delicate. They were all carefully arranged in the small wooden stable I’d purchased our first Christmas together as man and wife. I approached my toddler cautiously, like a trained negotiator approaching a bombing suspect. Once I got close enough, I dropped to my knees to appear non-threatening and to relate to the transgressor at her own level.
“Give the sheep to Mommy, honey,” I cooed. “Here, wouldn’t you like Elmo instead?” I waved the fluffy red monster in her direction. My daughter stared at me, her eyes wide the with joy of discovering a new toy. Her little cap of soft blond hair had one barrette hanging crazily above her left ear; it’s position as precarious as the cow’s. “Give the sheep to Mommy,” I repeated.
For a scant moment she seemed to consider my request, glancing briefly at the smooth shiny surface of her wooly captive. Then, with lightning speed, she dropped the sheep onto the carpet and reached out a sweaty hand for the tiny infant in his porcelain manger.
It was not my proudest moment as a mother. I rescued the baby Jesus and his china counterparts and moved them to mantle. My little girl toddled off seemingly unaware of her mother’s shame. That night, after my daughter was safely ensconced in her nursery, I went online and ordered a plastic nativity set. It arrived a week later and I set it up in place of its more illustrious counterpart. It remains one of the best toy purchases I’ve ever made.
Our Little People nativity set comes out every Christmas. I’ve all but forgotten about the beautiful wedding gift that seemed so important all those years ago. Now, our nativity set invites people, young and old, to touch, to feel and to learn.
Those little plastic people helped me teach my daughter the true meaning of Christmas. One year, we accompanied Mary and Joseph on the long trek to Bethlehem. We trudged those squat little figures across the living room floor from the couch to the coffee table and to the fireplace beyond. There was no room for them in the Fisher Price farmhouse, nor in the Lincoln Logs cabin. The Calico Critters directed them to the stable where they finally found shelter and warmth.
One year I watched as my daughter lined up all the characters, each to wait his or her turn to greet the blessed infant. A scuffle broke out in the back of the line between the camel and a troublesome sheep. The fight ended badly with the holy infant tumbling over onto the floor of the same wooden stable that housed such delicate works of art so many years before. I stepped in and chided the sheep gently. I turned to my daughter and said “Now what should the sheep do?” My little girl picked up the tiny bully and walked him over to the short chubby version of Mary. “I’m sorry I bonked your baby,” she intoned. “That’s okay,” responded Mary graciously. “But don’t do it again.”
I smiled, satisfied that my daughter had learned a lesson along with the overly aggressive sheep.
My child now is old enough to appreciate and care for delicate items. Yet, each year, I bypass our china nativity set and pull out the Little People. They have so many memories attached to them and, best of all, they’re indestructible. They will last forever. Who would have thought I’d find the true meaning of Christmas in a plastic toy?