Last Christmas was my first since my grandma died. I couldn’t bring myself to take down the framed, sepia photo of her as a young woman to put up my small, fake Christmas tree. She seemed happy next to my dad — two smiling souls who now lived in my bones, but not in their own. While I kept the unplanned shrine on top of the dresser, I dug into the depths of my closet for the tattered box that reads, “Covered Wagon,” a holdover from my grandpa who passed away before I was born. Inside the box were the ceramic pieces of the crèche, better known as a nativity scene, that my grandma picked up in Spain before I was born.
I lived at my grandma’s house from age three to nine, and my mom and I still went back to her house every Christmas. My Uncle Geoffrey, who is nine years my senior and lived at home, always put the lights on the Christmas tree. It was a chore my grandma had happily relinquished, and one that my uncle took on with determined precision.
From as far back as I can remember, my job was to carefully pull out the wooden manger with the straw roof.
Inside were the figurines, always carefully wrapped in the same soft, brown paper. The little sheep, no bigger than a thumb, were the most fun to uncover, as well as baby Jesus’ straw bed. The crèche always took its place on the dark, wooden side table, low enough for me to reach at any age.
I can’t remember the first time I arranged the figurines — only that my grandma found it humorous. I only know the story because it became one of her standbys. I recently asked my uncle what that arrangement had been, but he doesn’t remember. Neither does my mother, nor my younger sister. It’s the first piece of my history with my grandma that died with her. Part of me thinks I arranged all the figurines in a row. Another part thinks I turned them all backward. Or maybe I crowded them all inside the manger instead of letting some of the characters frolic in the open air.
Each year I tried to make a better arrangement than I had done the year before; I marked this task as a steady progression into adulthood.
The sheep shouldn’t be arranged the same as last year, I thought, or, Let’s move one of the herders inside this time. One year, as an adult, I somehow dropped a wise man, and his horse head was immediately decapitated. My uncle glued it back together, but it’s a yearly reminder of my failure to execute my duty and a reminder that the crèche is daringly ephemeral.
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I was the natural successor to inherit the crèche, but I didn’t always possess it, as I moved between too many states too often for it to be feasible. It remained with my aunt and uncle while I went off to college, and again once I went off to grad school. Four years ago I moved to Los Angeles, and two years ago the crèche finally made its journey to me from Washington State, where it last resided. Just like the covered wagon box that holds it, it made a trip through family members’ cars and homes before reaching my outstretched hands. My best friend and former roommate drove it to my aunt and uncle’s; my sister, who was visiting, brought it back to California; my sister gave it to my mom for safekeeping; my mom brought it back to my sister’s when I next came to visit. And I — feeling complete — drove it to my doorstep.
Last Christmas I flew back to Washington to spend the holiday with my aunts, uncles, and cousins. I needed to see the bedroom my grandma died in to know she was really gone. This year I’m doing the same. Soon I’ll take the crèche out of the back of my closet and arrange it on my bookcase in solitude. Someday I hope to pass down the responsibility to my four-year-old niece.
She won’t remember her great-grandmother, but maybe she’ll see the magic in these delicate pieces and treasure them just as I do.
My grandma was not religious, and neither are we, so the symbolism itself has no meaning. But the coming together of humans and animals each year, looking at each other with love in their eyes, brings us all a little closer.