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Making room in your inn

First slide

When I was a child, the first thing we brought down from the attic to start decorating for Christmas was the very heavy, very old Nativity scene. It was a beige, plaster cave-like stable about 2 feet tall and about a foot and a half wide. It was carved and had gold paint on the raised features and the thatched roof. Inside there were bump-outs for haystacks along the rough walls.

There was a small night-light bulb in the top of the back — sometimes the bulb was yellow, sometimes orange, and there was a curved opening for a window in the back where you might imagine a horse would peek into the stable.

The base had notches in which the figures rested. The cast was just Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, a shepherd, a cow and a sheep. I remember it was fun placing the different shaped figures into their spots. As the youngest child, I had the honor of placing Baby Jesus.

I think the Nativity had been a gift from my paternal grandmother, and chances are it was an antique when she bought it. Placing the Nativity first was a subtle sign that everything begins from there. After that, the tree would go up and other lights and decorations would take their places.

Since those days, I’ve added several Nativity scenes to my collection. There’s one from a visit to Mexico — small, colorful clay figures and a wooden stable; gold-tone modern figures from a trip to Italy; palm-sized carved alabaster from Guatemala; and one that belonged to Msgr. John Cilinski — blue painted delicate figures, among many others. Now, more than a decade after getting married, I still admire the similarly sized collection my husband, Chris Gunty, has. His favorite is the olive wood set his parents brought back from the Holy Land.

One of his family’s traditions was placing a piece of straw in the empty manger each time he or one of his nine siblings did a good deed throughout Advent. “There was a little Catholic guilt thrown in, that Jesus would not have a soft bed if we didn’t add straw,” he said.

Another family would hide the Three Wise Men around the house for the children to find so they could imagine them on their journey to see the Christ Child.

We’ve often debated the merits of keeping the Baby Jesus in the wings until Christmas. That is how Chris’ family did it. We put Jesus in his notch at the outset. It was too sad to see Mary and Joseph gazing lovingly at an empty notch. Either way, family traditions are a great time to remember the significance of the manger.

Chris and I came across a quote recently that suggested that we all are the “inn keepers.” It begs the question, do we make room at the inn — our homes, our lives, our mangers — for the Baby Jesus, the Holy Family, the origins of our faith, and the single most important event in our faith, the birth of our savior?

As we muddle through another Christmas affected by the global pandemic, some of our old traditions are still on the shelf. But the joy of setting up a Nativity is not only possible but an important place to start, with or without Jesus in his straw-filled bed.

Augherton can be reached at aaugherton@catholicherald.comor on Twitter at @aughertonACH.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021

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