They loved decorating for Christmas, my in-laws.
My mother-in-law had bows and garland running all through the house. Candles in each windowsill and against the panes, wreaths hanging from long ribbon.
My father-in-law took care of the outside. He made a lot of what he displayed—a wooden Santa and sleigh, snowmen. Every year he added a bit more.
In the backyard, which is what people saw first as they entered the neighborhood, stood the Nativity scene. Large, colorful, lighted figures. My father-in-law made a wooden stable to shelter Joseph, Mary, and the Baby. He covered the roof with straw and rigged a star to stand over it.
One year, when my children were small, vandals climbed the backyard fence on Christmas Eve. They knocked the Nativity figures down, coated them with black spray paint, and stole the Baby Jesus. He was nowhere to be found when my distraught in-laws discovered the desecration on Christmas morning.
My father-in-law painstakingly removed all of the spray paint—I can see him in my mind, bending to his task, working gently to avoid doing further damage, until the figures were clean.
My mother-in-law, however, was afraid to display the scene again:
“Whoever did this came over the fence, awfully close to the house. I don’t want to invite them back.”
She asked her son, my pastor husband, if he wanted the Nativity. After all, he and I lived in the country, in a parsonage right beside our church. Seemed a fitting home for a Nativity scene—albeit one without a Baby Jesus.
So we took it.
And put it up in the parsonage yard the next Christmas.
Our youngest son, a preschooler, was fascinated by the scene. He’d put on his coat and go out into the yard to stare at it for as long as we’d let him.
One day, he asked: “Why doesn’t Baby Jesus light up?”
We’d supplied a little wooden manger and a doll in swaddling cloths (i.e., a tightly-wrapped blanket). We simply told our boy that someone had taken the Jesus that lit up; we didn’t know who had done it or why, so we had to use this one.
He accepted that. Furthermore, his fascination rested on Joseph anyway. For a year or two, he referred to the entire Nativity scene as “The Joseph.”
He loved it so much that once people at church heard about it, they began giving him all kinds of small Nativity scenes. He put every one of them up in his room. I told my husband: “It’s beginning to look like a Palestinian South of the Border in there.”
Our boy became interested in the Wise Men next. He identified them by their clothing: the Blue Wise Man, the Green Wise Man, and the Pink Wise Man. He learned that they carried gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Of those, myrrh captured his imagination most. I think it was the sound of it.
A few times I caught him out in the yard with a blanket around him, kneeling at the manger.
When I asked what he was doing, he replied, solemnly, “I’m the fourth Wise Man.”
I crept away to a respectable distance, marveling at his devotion.
Many Christmases have come and gone. My in-laws are no longer here. “Ma-Ma” died at the end of November last year.
But my son, age twenty-one and a music minister now, still sets out that very same Nativity on the day after Thanksgiving. When the wind gusts enough to blow the figures down, he’s soon outside, standing them back up. The wooden stable fell apart long ago, but “Pa-Pa’s” star remains.
Oh, and we now have a Baby Jesus that lights up.
See, when our makeshift, non-lighted manger and doll got too weathered to use after a few seasons, our elementary-age son improvised with a stuffed dog that our real dogs had played with. It was dirty and torn. He placed right on the ground in front of Joseph and Mary.
I shuddered, thinking, Is it disrespectful to have such a thing depicting Jesus?
Then I realized . . . isn’t it actually more symbolic? To have a Jesus that’s torn, battered, and stained?
I used this as an analogy in a Sunday School lesson.
That Christmas Eve, church members who had a Nativity scene just like ours came in the night to leave their Baby Jesus in the back of my husband’s truck. On it was a note to our little son, wishing him a Merry Christmas.
And that is what Christmas is all about, is it not.
Pa-Pa removing the paint. The people sacrificially replacing what was taken long ago.
Restoring what seems to be hopelessly beyond repair.
My son pauses by the window. The old Nativity is still standing there in our yard, lighting up this dark Christmas Eve night, as I write. My son goes up the stairs to his room, where he’ll work on his music for a while longer.
And I hear the strains of song, faintly:
With the dawn of redeeming grace . . . .