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Come to the Manger
by Amy Kenneley

Woolworth's 5 & 10 Cent Store was all decked out for Christmas. Not only did our family buy most of our decorations there, we bought a lot of our presents there, too.

Where else could you find a huge bottle of Evening In Paris toilet water or a pair of women's brown cotton lisle stockings for under a dollar?

Besides being an all-around purveyor of ordinary goods for ordinary folks, the local dime store was bursting with Christmas cheer. From the raised platform of the record section, a salesgirl was busy changing the holiday songs from the record player connected to the store's loudspeaker.

This was a job I wanted someday; it must be a swell job, playing music all day long and selling records and sheet music to people! Right now she was playing the newest hit, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus."

Burning a hole in my pocket was the money from fall chores. I had painted the back fence-a little messy, but finished- and washed all the windows with Bon Ami soap.

I had run countless errands for Great-Grandma, and stood as first assistant behind Grandpa as he squeezed the bulb of graphite dust into all the keyholes and replaced the worn lamp cord on the brass floor lamp.

Decking The Halls

Past the record and sheet music section were the holiday decorations. There must have been ten thousand glass balls and hundreds of strings of Noma bubble lights. Everything glistened.

Then, for the next 10 feet, were plaster figures of every shape and kind necessary for a truly spectacular Nativity scene.

The shepherds watching their flocks by night were kneeling, standing and carrying lambs. The lambs, both standing and with legs tucked underneath, were flocking in droves. A huge ram stood watch as well. With big horns.

And angels. Plenty of them. Ready to be hung from strings as though flying.

Next to them were Magi, in three kinds of colors. They all wore great crowns and carried differently shaped gifts-one kneeling in purple robes, one standing with green robes, and one seated on a camel with deep blue robes.

There were herds of donkeys, camels, and cows.

About 50 Josephs dressed in brown were leaning on staffs,and as many kneeling Marys wearing blue, kneeling with clasped hands.

Oh, the stables! There were lots of stables piled up at the end of the counter. They were made of pressed paper painted brown. Here and there twigs were added for rafters and fencing. The straw glued down to look like a thatch roof was drifting off the mangers and falling onto the dime store floor.

The Mantle Manger

Coming home that afternoon, I was weighed down with two big shopping bags. Inside one was a genuine paper stable, and inside the other-Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.

The older folks watched with amusement as I banished the Seth Thomas mantle clock to the top of the Magnavox television console, and set the brass candlesticks behind the doors of the built-in bookcases where Grandpa kept all his Life and Saturday Evening Post magazines.

Soon the entire Bethlehem was spread out across the mahoghany mantlepiece, and the ledge above held the Wise Men with their camels and assorted servants. A nail in the wallpaper to hang the plaster of Paris golden star, and I was finished.

If sand had been available I would probably have included that too, but as it was I settled for rolled cotton dusted with glitter for Bethlehem's ground.

Front and Center

When the relatives came, they oohed and ahhhed over my set. Feeling quite proud of having spent my hard-earned money on something religious, I kept reminding my younger cousins that they couldn't play with the camels and sheep-only I could.

My uncle came over and asked me to tell him all about the Manger scene. Taking a deep breath, I first explained how much each piece had cost me-five cents for a sheep and up to seventy-five cents for a Wise Man.

"Very, very lovely" Uncle Artie said. "I can't think of a better way to spend your allowance." Coming from him, it was a good compliment--he was a deacon in his church, after all. I had "done good" as some would say. Pretty holy.

Then he poked his head closer to the manger and said, "I can't seem to find the Baby Jesus, though"

"Oh, he's there, in the back"

I pointed past the twig fence, the flock of sheep and the shepherds, past the cows and the donkeys and the kneeling Magi and the angels bringing tidings of great joy to all men, past Joseph leaning on his staff and Mary kneeling with clasp hands---to the little cardboard cross-hatched manger with the cut up pieces of straw.

"Here's Jesus!" I pointed triumphantly.

Uncle Artie squinted, following my pointing finger. He agreed that, yes, he could see 'way in the back to the tiny manger and he could almost make out the little swaddled baby with arms outstretched and a golden halo painted around his head.

Then he asked me, "If someone who knew nothing about Christmas were to visit, would they know what Christmas was about?"

He said it in the kindest way. To his eyes, something needed to be changed.

The biggest pieces had taken center stage. They had the brightest colors, or were doing interesting things. Even the sheep had individual painted faces. I had shown every piece to best advantage-except the most important person, except the one who defines all the others.

The Baby Jesus, the smallest of all, the plainest in white wrappings, was what the Nativity was about. But there He was at the back of the manger, a bit player in my Christmas story when He WAS the Christmas story.

Uncle Artie helped me re-arrange all the camels, donkeys, Magi, shepherds and cows. We cleared out the stable and put Joseph on one side and Mary on the other. Front and center was the little manger with Baby Jesus lifting his arms.

"You'll have this for years to come," my uncle told me, "and I think you will know what order to put it in now, too"

Bethlehem past and present

He was right. Uncle Artie has been gone many years, but his gentle lesson lasted longer. His lesson lasted even longer than the Nativity set, whose camels fell and broke legs, whose Magi lost their glittery crowns, whose sheep crumbled to plaster dust.

One by one, the Nativity set was diminished by time, until only the Baby Jesus and his straw-filled manger was left. After a household move, even He was lost forever.

Through the years we have used up several Nativity sets. Most of them have gone the way of the first one, lovingly played with-and broken sometimes-- by children learning to tell the story of the little baby born in a stable.

Today the most recent set is played with by another grandchild, who moves the donkey and the cow back and forth, talks to Joseph and Mary, and rearranges the straw.

He doesn't have to reach far back into the wooden stable to find Baby Jesus, though. The manger is right up front, where the Baby Jesus can be seen, his tiny arms reaching out to the world in blessing.

The supporting cast of Bethlehem is nearby, ready to worship the One foretold. Each piece is ready to depict the Christmas Story--the heads of both beast and man are turned to His face, for HE is the Christmas Story.

Blessings to all this holy season, and keep peace and Him in your hearts.

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