January 6th in the Episcopal liturgical calendary is the feast day Epiphany–important for me as a young Episcopalian in Carmel, Indiana in the 1960s, because our parish celebrated with “The Burning of the Greens.” It put the final bookend to the season of festivity that started with Advent. We’d all gather in the church parking lot around a pyre made of the greenery removed from the sanctuary, augmented by Christmas trees brought from our homes. The sparks flew into the night sky carrying our prayers for the year ahead. Faith submitted another kind of Epiphany memory for your reading pleasure.
By Faith Ellestad
I was the third of four children born into a seriously Catholic family, and like most Catholic families, we had our special traditions to accompany various feast days, holy days and holidays. Our favorites, of course, revolved around Christmas. We especially loved the day we decorated our tree and set up our Nativity tableau, always on a high shelf, hopefully out of reach of our dog. Curly was a very limber dog, a spaniel-terrier mix with a remarkable talent for scoping out and sneaking off with forbidden objects. His go-to burial plot was next to the garage, but occasionally he would chew through his rope, and permit himself a nice dig in our neighbors’ garden. We were friends with the Van Daams, but they were not dog lovers. Mr. V would periodically weary of Curly’s transgressions and appear at our door angrily waving whatever half-eaten dirt covered object or tangled string of Christmas lights he had discovered in his yard. He always forgave us, though.
Christmastime was especially hazardous for poor Curly, owing to the availability of tree decorations, lights, figurines, and unusual foods, all so tempting to a curious canine. He so enjoyed surreptitiously munching on the occasional fallen ornament, or forbidden hors d’oeuvre or strand of tinsel, and had required at least one festive holiday visit to the vet for a tinselectomy. He was particularly alert for any opportunity to raid the Nativity scene.
What made our creche unique among the doubtless millions of crèches displayed worldwide during the Christmas season was the eclectic collection of mostly papier mache figures. We had, of course, the Holy Parents: Mary, dressed in a blue veil and pink gown, and Joseph in a brown tunic, grasping a straightened paper clip, someone’s solution for a replacement of his lost staff. They were flanked by a devout shepherd, a donkey, and an ox who was absent one horn. Because of his deformity the ox always faced left to highlight his good side.
According to the Bible, the Three Wise Men did not arrive in Bethlehem until January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany, so we placed them on the shelf a short distance from the Family group, and moved them a little closer each day. Balthazar and Melchior were made of papier mache and stood upright; Casper, puzzlingly, was plaster of paris and was molded in a semi-kneeling position, creating the impression that he may have crab-walked all the way from Egypt to the stable. In the middle of one Christmas season the original Baby Jesus, manger, and shepherd’s flock had gone missing–courtesy, we assumed, of Curly. This was not a situation we could leave unaddressed.
To repair the damage and save Curly from a harsh reprimand, our artistically talented and bossy big sister, Ann, took charge. She painstakingly constructed a manger out of a tiny matchbox with toothpicks for legs, and a mattress of evergreen needles. My brothers and I were dispatched to Cherry’s Dime Store to see if we could come up with a replacement baby Jesus and other accessories for the crèche. My older brother dug through the farm animal display and discovered a 4 pack of little plaster sheep, perfect for the flockless shepherd back home, while I searched the girl toy section for a Jesus doll small enough to fit in a little matchbox manger and not overpower its 3 inch parents. Eventually, I found the perfect thing- a thin plastic rod holding five tiny pink naked baby dolls attached to it by plastic tabs. It was like a tree branch of babies. You could snap one doll off, and have four in reserve. Our little brother, not showing any religious inclination at all, selected a miniature metal airplane and we hurried home with our finds. Ann snapped one of the babies off the rod, wrapped it in a minute strip of cloth from someone’s old undershirt, the best we could do for swaddling clothes, placed it in the matchbox manger and arranged the sheep at the feet of the shepherd. Finally, the manger scene was once again complete. We were delighted to the point of smugness with our innovative additions.
This mismatched group of figures served as the family crèche for years. Eventually, as we grew up and started our own traditions, our parents acquired a very elegant Lennox nativity set and the old one was packed away. But I had always had great affection for the shabby old set, and some years later, when my first child was a baby, I retrieved it from my parents’ basement in the hope that it was still usable. As I unpacked the box, I discovered that each figure had been carefully wrapped in numerous Kleenexes that over time, had become quite friable and disintegrated at my touch, covering the figures and me with a fine patina of years-old dust. Once I ceased coughing and cleaned off the debris, I could see the set was intact; even the matchbox manger had survived. Baby Jesus was extremely grimy, and tooth marks suggested that he had been rescued from Curly at some point, but still recognizable in his yellowed swaddling clothes. As I washed him tenderly, I thought about the branch of baby Jesuses and wondered what had ever become of them.
I queried the family, but way too much time had passed and no one could remember. Likely the dog had buried them or chewed them to pieces, or they were lost during some move or another. Well, the original was clean, if a bit dented. I could have gone on a replacement mission, but by then I was busy with my own real baby.
Some years later, after my dad died, Mom wanted to distribute a few of his favorite belongings to us kids. I already had the old Nativity set which I loved, but only I considered that a prize. These antiques were special to him. There was a beautiful set of cranberry colored cut glass vases with covers, a ceramic Mettlach stein, a little pewter dachshund with a hollowed out back for holding a pipe, and a silver plate tea service. As we examined these artifacts, we shared stories about them. We reminisced about the day our house was moved from one lot to another. All the breakables had been packed, but no one had noticed the cranberry glasses still sitting on the mantle. Amazingly, they had survived the move intact. Mom gave them to my sister, who had coveted them since early childhood. I got the tea set which I had admired for its delicate etched flower pattern when I hosted tea parties for my dolls, My younger brother, who smoked a pipe took the dachshund with its comforting, smooth concave back, and my older brother received Great Grandfather’s mug with the pewter lid that we all remembered flipping up and down as kids, just to hear the satisfying thunk it made when it closed, even though we were forbidden to touch it. I wanted to give it a last flip for old times sake before it went to live with my brother, so I placed my thumb on the little flange, flicked up the lid, and glanced inside. Unbelievable! There, in the bottom of the stein, were the four missing baby Jesuses! Wordlessly, I handed the mug to my sister. “Oh, wow!” she exclaimed, looking in, “so that’s where babies come from!”
And that’s how I found Jesus – in a beer stein.
(c) Faith Ellestad
Faith describes herself as a serial under-achiever, now retired after many years as a hospital scheduling specialist. When her plan to cultivate a gardening hobby resulted only in hives, she decided to get real and explore her long-time interest in creative writing. She’s so happy she did. Faith and her husband live in Madison, WI . They have two grown sons of whom they are very proud, and a wonderful daughter-in-law.
This story is dedicated to the memory of Ivy, our beloved Belgian Tervuren who died in November. Although not particularly a dog story, it reminds me of how pets insert themselves into every aspect of our lives and why we let them.