On my daily trip to work I passed eleven separate recreations of the birth of the baby Jesus. They ranged from a store-bought light up set of two-foot tall plastic figurines stuck into the muddy grass in front of someone’s carport to a full-size hand-built barn front featuring what looked to be store mannequins wearing ponchos. In between these escapee Mexican extras from a 1950’s western wandered two real cows and, I swear to you, a llama, each leashed to the barn-sided set.
I’m sure the cows were happy. Today was kind of a sloppy day, and, while the rest of the herd was standing in the rain and snow, these two and their llama friend got to be under a roof. Well. Sort of a roof. It’s a half-roof – four feet or so of shingles hanging over the front of the would-be manger.
After all, we don’t want the baby to get wet.
It rains and snows so much in the desert there in Bethlehem.
It’s Christmas, which means people all over our area are decorating their yards with recreations of the birth of the savior. And manger scenes are one of my favorite things about the holidays.
Of course, you don’t have to go to such lengths to prove to the world that you’re happy about Christmas. You don’t have to construct your own manger, as this family did. You can just travel down to the department store near you and buy a ready-made manger set. They range in price from $24.95 all the way up to several hundred bucks, depending on size and quality. The more money you spend, the bigger the people are, basically. But the number of people rarely changes from store-bought manger to store-bought manger.
There were six people and two farm animals on hand that night. And a star. I learned this fact as a child not from The Bible, but from Hills department store in Calcutta, Ohio, when I was 12 or so.
And now, years later, I would like to know whose responsibility it was to come up with the particular casting of the manger scene. What department store executive sat behind a desk, some July afternoon decades ago, and put down on paper that from now on, the light up, plastic manger scene sold in all department stores would be made up of nine figurines – the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, a camel, a donkey and a north star?
It’s a nice combo.
The more expensive ones come with light bulbs that light their plastic bodies, giving the participants the kind of glow you would get if you witnessed the birth of the world’s most important religious figure. In addition, if one places a light bulb of extreme wattage, say, a 150-watt bulb, into the stomach of Joseph, soon he will begin to resemble John Hurt in the movie Aliens. His stomach will distend forward until he explodes in melted plastic all over Mary’s back.
At least, that’s what happened to the manger scene we bought at Hills in 1972.
It ended up looking as though Joseph has been shot-gunned from behind.
The folks who display mangers should receive my applause today. But I have a special salute to those who look at the basic manger set-up and realize it’s just not enough. Sure, Jesus had his Mom and sort-of Dad there with him. After all, there was no room at the Inn. And there’s no doubt about the wise men. And the donkey. The camel is a given. But special recognition must go out to those of you who think the savior and his birth party arrived in the holy land by train. For some people, a manger scene isn’t real enough until a Lionel circles the virgin birth. And giant light-up plastic candles that say NOEL on them. For light. After all, we’re dealing with childbirth in a barn. We need as much light as possible.
Many have questioned the connection of Santa Claus to the Christian faith. I can explain it, thanks to our neighbors in Chester. I learned from their annual display that Santa was there, handing out presents when Jesus was born.
And he brought along a fully decorated Christmas tree. And a sleigh. I guess it was pulled by a donkey and a camel.
I can’t complete this little talk about manger scenes without delving into what may be the only real theater left in this country – the live manger scene. You’ve seen them. They’re usually set up in the front yard of a church somewhere in your neighborhood. Similar to the light-up varieties bought in department stores, the live manger scene has the same basic characters. But, rather than lifeless and plastic, they’re live, cold and bored. There’s Joseph, dying for a cigarette. Mary, who’s wearing an iPod. The three wise men – the plumber, the accountant and the plumber’s son who is working off a punishment for staying out past his curfew - tower over a tiny, plastic light up donkey, an even smaller camel and the plumber’s daughter’s baby doll.
A girl baby doll, by the way. But who’s looking under swaddling clothes when it’s 22 degrees in the desert?
Having once stood around for five nights in front of a Methodist Church I did not attend, wrapped in a bed sheet, holding a coffee can disguised as a gift of Myrrh, I have a certain soft spot in my heart for live manger scenes.
And I hope that those of you participating this year are doing so for the right reasons. A love of God and your fellow man.
Because, I must warn you, the other reason? The one where you’re doing it to get a date with the girl playing the Virgin Mary, who goes to the Methodist church? Let me advise you. It didn’t work then. And I don’t think it’ll work now.
And another fact: 2000-year old mangers do not have indoor plumbing.
Stay away from the coffee.
And if you have to go, do it near the donkey. It’ll give a certain realism to the scene.