We wash our hands and Mommy zips me into my blue parka before she pulls on her maroon coat with the fur collar and cuffs. She puts me in the front seat and slams the door of our blue and white Dodge with tail fins like a big fish. She reaches in her purse and pulls out a shiny tube. Then glancing in the mirror, arches each lip with the color of a candy apple. Her purse snaps shut, and we are off to the ten cent store across the street from Kroney’s Market.
In the center of the five and dime there is a high counter where a short little old lady sits behind a cash register while her little old man wanders the store. I glide along the outside counters fingering the small bins of pink teddy bear erasers, the Mickey Mouse pencil cases, the blunt- tipped scissors, silver jacks, rubber balls, green dice, leather wallets branded with lariats and rearing horses, cap guns, rolls of red caps, balloons, bubbles, balsa wood airplanes, Popeye Pez dispensers, Tootsie Roll Pops, all things I can only hope Santa will leave in my green felt stocking.
Mommy is standing by the plastic folded rain hats, miniature sewing kits, darning needles, and crochet hooks when the little old man says, “May I help you?”
“Yes, Mr. Koontz.” Mommy scans the shelves above the bins lined with china figurines: German shepherds, angora kittens, Jack and Jill going up the hill… “Do you carry nativity figures?”
“Right this way.” Mr. Koontz leads us towards more bins chocked with ten cent bearded men in red bathrobes, ladies in blue bathrobes and matching head scarves, and babies stuck in troughs like where Granddaddy feeds the cattle. There are all sorts of animals too. Mommy says I can pick out two lambs, a cow, a donkey, and even a camel with a fancy red saddle. We pick out two of the bearded men. She says one will be Joseph, the other a shepherd. One blue lady will be Mary, the mother of the baby stuck in the trough. She also selects three men dressed like kings. The purple one carries a golden treasure chest, the green one a basket. The red king has his hand over his heart.
When we get home the saw dust is dry, so I can put all the animals in our little barn. Mommy says the people go in the barn too. She says the baby’s name is Jesus, and the kings are wise men who have come to worship him. She hangs a crocheted angel from the window latch to sing to the shepherd while he watches his sheep. She tells me this is what Christmas is really about and yet we place the crèche on the shelf next to the record player where Daddy plays Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and we hang up my stocking.
Before bed we put out a plate of cookies for Santa and two carrots for his reindeer. Lying on the braided rug in the dark living room, I stare at the Christmas tree lights, and believe, as only a child can believe, in the magic of Christmas Eve. And so I dream up a plan. After mommy and daddy go to sleep, I will sneak out of my bed and hide in the cupboard by the fireplace. From there, I am sure to witness Santa coming down the chimney to stuff my stocking.
But in the morning, I find myself under my covers, my plan failed. Yet there is my stocking, the top bulging with a pink tulle tutu. “Mommy, Daddy, Look! Santa knew just what I wanted.” They titter and sip their Nescafe as I squeeze the leotard on right over my pajamas. Mommy sets the arm of the record player on the Nutcracker, and I leap onto the coffee table, twirling with joy beside the crèche – waiting patiently on the shelf.
Waiting for me to figure out that Mommy and Daddy ate Santa’s cookies and tucked me in my bed, that shepherds are poor, dirty men nobody usually sings to, that having a baby in a barn is gross and desperate. Yet Christmas is not the fraud that Santa is.
It will take years before I understand why the green wise man’s basket held incense used for both burial and worship. Years before I understand that the purple king’s glittering gift was nothing compared to the gift of the baby stuck in the trough. Years before I am again child enough to place my own hand over my heart and believe the eye witness account of the Christmas miracle displayed by a tattered crèche.