Saturday, December 24, 2011

Nativity for the Common Man

As a child, I remember a spot light shining on a manger next to life size painted plywood cut-outs of people by the entrance to our church. At home, Mom placed three 12”candles shaped like the wise men on the buffet near the decorated tree. These were indications of the Christmas season. We didn’t have a “crèche,” which now I understand to mean a set (like a stage set) on which the nativity figures were placed, so I didn’t practice telling and retelling the story of the nativity while positioning the miniature dolls and animals into the scene. As an adult, I notice nativity scenes in December when blinking lights outline the rooftops and on front yards, the molded plastic father, mother and baby glow from inside. This year was different as my first nativity sighting occurred on July 6th when I opened the cabinet door under the sink at Aldo, 17 Ricasoli, Florence, IT. Accompanied by a sleeve of unused colored sponges, the crèche (complete with glued down Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, and some animals) rested peacefully beneath silver drain pipes. I took finding the “Nativity Scene with Sponges” as an omen of good things to come. I did not know at the time that my mission for the 2011 holiday season would turn into a search for the nativity scene representing the common man.
Near my home, at the Church of the Latter Day Saints, there is an annual display of nativity scenes. I had never seen it so this year, with camera in hand, I stopped by to snap some photos. At the entrance, I learned photos were only allowed of the choir and family photos, so my camera went back in the car and I went inside. More than 400 nativity scenes were displayed on draped tables throughout the church. Some were ornate as if made by a master craftsman, others childlike. All had a baby with his parents and beyond that, the scenes grew to contain as many as 60 to 75 figurines and props from animals and palm trees to bridges and ox carts. The largest scenes were life size and the smallest would fit easily in a measuring cup. They were carved from mother of pearl, exotic wood, stone, metal, bone, and drift wood. They were crafted from buttons, wash cloths, cut tin, glass, wire, beads, and one of my favorites was made of tightly rolled paper.    They were sewn of patchwork fabric, hand embroidered, machine stitched, crocheted, and cut of felt. They were painted, molded, glued, formed of modeling clay and assembled with Legos. A tree was covered with nativity ornaments and there was a collector series of porcelain figures, the type you might find in a stationary store. One scene was intricately carved inside a section of a tree branch and next to it, a set of painted egg shapes nestled one egg inside the other. Several crèches were mounted on hinged sides that closed into a storage box. In the corner of one room was a four foot tall 3-D landscape complete with fish swimming in a pond and an electronic star filled sky. Many of the displays had cherubs, people and animals, all with elongated necks representing the artistic style of their country of origin.
In the main hall, local children’s choirs sang as people of all ages, economic backgrounds, and races wandered through the display filled rooms. Tears unexpectedly filled my eyes when I peeked into a tiny room barely larger than a coat closet, which had been transformed into a stable. “Try this on,” said the lady shepherd passing tunics to a young man and his wife. “Place your baby here in the manger,” she said adjusting the husband’s headpiece and motioning them to sit on the bales of hay. The next family in line had already been handed the young couple’s camera and took photos of the costumed family in the Bible story setting. (Now I understood what the greeter meant by "family photos.") In the South American room, colorful tissue flowers and shiny ornaments hung from the ceiling. In another room, the walls were covered with a black silhouette of an ancient Middle Eastern skyline and a short video reenactment of the nativity played on a loop on a big TV set. There was no charge for the viewing and although I felt it was a shame I couldn’t take photos, I would probably have had to be pulled away while the event was being dismantled, saying “But I need to take more photos!” I was mesmerized by the variety of sculptural pieces from 50 countries as I asked myself, “How did they all know the same story?”

Reading has always been a challenge for me, but overload me with visuals and I’m happy...  hence, the drive-through nativity staged by the local 7th Day Adventist Church was the next activity on my quest. When it was my turn in line, I rolled down my window and a man named Jon (the pastor at the church in shepherd garb holding a warm cup of soup – did I mention it was 38 degrees outside), welcomed me as well as all the cars in front and behind me. Next another shepherd helped me turn my car headlights to parking lights. Then a woman and her son, dressed as townsfolk, took the census, “How many people in your car and how did you learn about this.” I’m sure her son looks forward to one day playing the role of the innkeeper or a wise man. Finally another shepherd handed me a CD and explained that the CD would tell the story of each scene and indicate when it was time to drive to the next scene. 

Like the Duomo, against the darkness of the nighttime sky, the vignettes shown as brightly colored pages from a child’s picture book. The sets glowed with just the right amount of theatrical lighting and just the right amount of wind and fog to make each scene believable. The flat backdrops and draped curtains were simple in form and, graciously accepted shadows cast upon them by the movement of the actors. Camels, sheep, donkeys, and roosters performing in unscripted roles provided the added touch to bring the scenes to life. Painted billowing canvas created the cave-like space containing the nativity scene. It was very much like the actual birthing cave in Bethlehem that I saw when I was 27 when my mom, dad and I went to Israel. Where the baby was born in the stable was a confined space, a small cave. Instead of the closeness making me feel too large like Alice in Wonderland, I felt quite tiny. If I had been there at the actual birth, I imagine I would have fit into the little hand of the newborn baby Jesus.  
I visited neighbors the next day and mentioned how impressed I was with the staging and props, and how the cars dimmed their lights and it really felt like a private showing, and that maybe now I was beginning to understand the nativity story. The conversation was not interactive, just me recalling in elaborate detail the drive-through experience, complete with a weather report on the temperature and a short commentary about what the pastor might have worn under the shepherd outfit. Bill’s head tilted down as he looked over his half glasses reading the Sunday paper; Jeanette hummed as she wrapped holiday sweets in the kitchen; and Jennifer sat by the fireplace with her feet on an ottoman, hand stitching a very large needle point. I jabbered on describing the life size sets one by one, “And there was a real camel, and sheep, and at the end there was heaven and it was all foggy and there was with a band of angels with white-mittened hands standing on a truckload-of-cotton-balls cloud and blowing songs of praise out their horns, and then an exit sign.”
                                        “Ah,” said Jennifer without skipping a stitch, “the back door to heaven.” 

The CD continued after the tour was over which gave me something to listen to on the ride home. Pastor Jon talked about how much his church liked to stage the free drive-through nativity scene and he said something I had never heard put into words before, “Think of it – how could a Jew of humble birth who lived only 33 ½ years, never went to college, who never traveled more than 200 miles from his birth place, never wrote a book, and who when he died possessed nothing but the clothes he wore, have influenced the societies and the cultures of the world so profoundly that time itself is divided before and after his birth.                   
And that brings this story of my search for the “Nativity for the Common Man” to a close.  Needless to say, I was intrigued by the interpretation of artists from around the world as they recreated the story of a man whose wife had a baby in a stable on a star lit night in Bethlehem many, many years ago.  Happy Holidays to all – may you each find the nativity story presented in manner that speaks to you.

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