Away in a Manger

At this time of year, I can’t help but think of Mary and Joseph as I walk through the barns on our farm. I’ve come to know that stables/mangers are pretty stinky places, albeit warmish. The earthy smells of hay, straw and fresh poop combine to make quite a pungent bouquet.  I think of Mary, a very young woman with an unplanned pregnancy, waddling around, swollen with child, teetering on the back of a donkey, looking for a room for the night. I think of myself at that stage of pregnancy, and remember at that point I was so done. I could barely sit on the couch, let alone a donkey. Surely Mary and Joseph were fighting over directions because obviously they got into Bethlehem late and all the rooms were taken. It must have been tense. I can only imagine the look on Mary’s face when Joseph told her, “Yeah, so … they’re out of rooms. But guess what?” I think I would have taken Joe’s head off. I mean, really?

“If we had just asked for directions, I’d be in a warm bed right now, pal.”

I’ve always had an affinity for my girl, the Blessed Virgin Mary or BVM. After all, she is my namesake. My mom and dad were big fans, too. My dad carried a copy of The Memorare a devotional prayer to Mary, in his wallet. My mom, like any good Catholic mother, had several statues and paintings of the BVM all over her house. Each May, my mom and I would make a May Altar to Mary. I would go outside and pick daffodils, crab apple branches, hyacinth, and tulips and deck out what was normally a bar in our dining room, turning it into a beautiful, fragrant altar to Mary. Each day after school I would check on it, cleaning up the fallen petals from the crabapple branches and sprucing it up for my gal.

Perhaps because there were only four TV stations in the sixties, every Christmas Eve growing up, my family would reenact the nativity with a Christmas Pageant. Instead of a barn, our nativity scene took place in front of the fireplace in the family room. After I debuted as a restless Baby Jesus, I went on to own the role of Mary for several years until grandchildren came along and stole my part. With nine children, it was easy for my parents to populate the cast for their annual pageant: three wise men, Mary and Joseph, two shepherds, two angels. My mom was always the innkeeper, peeping through the shuttered doors with curlers in her hair, shaking her head to mime those infamous words, “No room at the inn.” My dad was the narrator and cameraman with his Super 8 camera and its white-hot lamp beaming down on the action like an interrogator’s flashlight.

The home movies of those pageants are priceless. The shepherds were bedecked with dishrags from the kitchen on their heads with a little mashed potato smear still on them, secured around the head with tube socks or the belt to someone’s robe. The angels rocked some white bed sheets, taken right off the bed, with tree garland on their heads for halos. The kings were rakishly handsome in my mother’s bathrobes with beards made from dusters turned upside down and tucked under their chins. It was always a surprise to see what the kings’ gifts for the babe would be. Sometimes it was a goofy photo, other times it was dinner leftovers. My personal favorite was the time my brother opened a soup pot to reveal not gold, frankincense or myrrh, but my mother’s orthopedic shoes for Baby Jesus. My poor father just kept filming, surely thinking to himself, “And this is why I go to mass every day. To pray for these slobs.”

I was always very serious during the pageant, representing for my pal Mary. I dutifully stayed in character as the Blessed Mother, kneeling patiently, sweating in front of the hot fireplace. I doted on my baby doll and tried to ignore my older siblings’ sacrilegious behavior. Eventually, it all went to hell when we gathered for a curtain call in front of the camera, my brothers striking muscle poses, my sisters doing Miss America waves. Then someone would fart and we’d all collapse into a pileup.

In spite of us all being in varying degrees of devotion to the church, the Christmas pageant tradition has continued through the nine of us siblings and through thirty grandchildren. This year, most of the twenty-seven great-grandchildren will put on the performance, with five babies vying for the coveted role of Baby Jesus. (We may need to have co-Jesuses … or is it “Jesi?”) The costumes have gotten a bit more sophisticated, but not much. Old bridesmaids dresses, lace table clothes and some of my mother’s fancy lingerie from the ‘50’s are all in the costume box (talk about sacrilege).

I’m sure my parents are looking down from heaven with amusement and hopefully pride at what they started all those years ago. Somewhere amidst the bed sheets, the tinsel halos, and the farting, something made an impression. The message got through to stop for a moment and think of what happened over 2,000 years ago in a barn in a small town in the Middle East: no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head. Each December, I walk through our barns, inhale that dank, animal scent, remember BVM, and say, “It all started with you, sister. Thanks. While I’m nowhere near worthy, I’m honored to share your name.” 

The third generation continues the tradition ...

The third generation continues the tradition ...