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The Line for the Family Stable Starts Here. Click to see a photo of the Nativity set that the author grew up with
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Written by Tess Hoffman for Family Christmas OnlineTM

The Line For the Family Stable Forms Here

One of my earliest memories of childhood involves a luminous record player/radio and our family nativity set. Our ancient cabinet model, with the lid that lifted to reveal a turntable, glowed invitingly, and in a home which did not have one of those new television sets, offered me a window to the outside world of Jack Benny, Father Knows Best, and my hero-of-heroes, Gene Autry. But perhaps the coolest spec that this machine offered was that it played at 16 2/3 RPM! The advantage of this speed was that a little kid could take the sheep from our manger, place them on the turntable and watch them revolve around the center post without hurtling off into space.

Our nativity figures were of a delicate plaster, simple in design, and they were to us children, of course, the only kind of figures anyone in the world would ever want to own. The nativity in front of the altar at church, the giant nativities in the department store windows – those were all well and good, and quite wonderful. But those were Out There. A home could be quite happy with our figures, in their stable which my father constructed for his and my mother’s first Christmas together.

The nativity story was so much a part of our lives in small-town Ohio that it was lodged in our spiritual DNA. My father, when he found that one of us had failed to close a door on a chilly day, would use the old challenge his own father used: “Close the door. Were you born in a barn?” And one day my four-year-old sister replied, puzzled, “Yes, I had to be in the barn, so the shepherds could come and see me.”

Years later, when I married, my parents gave my husband and me a set very much like theirs, though we were not as handy with tools, and eventually bought a stable from Sears. This pageant of parents and child and legendary visitors has sat over the years on our mantle, on our piano and on our windowsill. It was always within reach of our two children who came along, though of course they received the same cautions as I had about being careful not to drop. By this time the old record player was long gone, and our new, modern turntable couldn’t go any slower than a potentially disastrous 33 1/3 RPM, so I never pointed out to my own children the possible thrill rides our sheep could have taken.

Somewhere in those early years, Baby Jesus did get a hand broken off, but we found the hand and reattached it. Each year when the manger came out of the box, our children took the same sort of fascination in it as I had with ours when I was little. One day we came into the family room to discover that the nativity scene on the bay window sill had been organized by our daughter: Mary and Joseph were, of course, flanking the little crib. Lined up to the East, in order of size, were the animals, starting with the lambs, arrayed through donkey and cow, and ending with the camels. And lined up to the West, patiently waiting their turn to see the Baby, were the people: shepherds, then kings and their groom, then Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch in his garbage can, and Goofy.

When my brother and his wife had their first little girl, I went on a quest to buy them a manger like the one he and I had grown up with, but there was none to be had. During a now-unimaginable period of time, Christmas had become rather invisible, with Christmas carols nearly disappearing from the radio, television throughout the holiday season dripping with the same blood and flying bullets as throughout the year, and nativity sets so scarce that I actually tried to make them one in my kitchen out of plaster of Paris. As the white liquid ran from the molds and over my kitchen floor, my friend quoted the go-ahead, you-deserve-to-do-something-nice-for yourself-for-a-change Clairol hair color ad from the television: “This I do for myself,” she grinned.

Click to see a bigger photo.Eventually I found them a set of figures made to look like children in a pageant. It was not exactly what I had in mind, but it had to do. And over the years I added figures to their set when I found angels or little farm animals which might roughly match.

When our daughter married, my mother gave her a little set. And this past Christmas, a terrifying time in our family when our one-year-old granddaughter went through three surgeries and seven weeks of IV antibiotics for osteomyelitis, my husband and I gave our Madeline her first set. It’s a little fragile, but I want her to be able to hold it, and move it around, and organize the reception line as we did, and as her mother did.

My chiropractor took his out-of-town visitors to church last Christmas. Sitting in the crowded church, his brother’s little boy had a hard time seeing anything but the backs of the other worshippers. But at Communion, he suddenly started, pointed, and said, loudly and delightedly, “Look, Daddy! They have a Jesus farm set just like ours!”

So, for all the Jesus farm sets out there in people’s homes, I send a wish for the blessings of immediacy, of holding immense power in our child’s hands, of living with the ancient past on our window sills, of expecting Oscar the Grouch, Goofy, G.I. Joe and our troll dolls to stop and take the time to line up to see something and somebody special.

Love, Tess

P.S.: If you have any corrections, comments, or additions you would like to make about this article, please contact Paul Race [the editor], and he'll get your comments to me. God bless.

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