The scene stays in my memory like a sepia-toned photograph. I am perhaps five or six years old, for it is before my grandparents have moved from their farmhouse into town and while my great-grandmother is still with us. We are gathered in the farmhouse living room, the adults on the couches and a few chairs pulled in from the dining room, and my brothers and I on the floor. I am cuddled against Dad’s knee, staring at the Nativity scene on the low coffee table a few feet away from me, and trying not to think of the presents stacked under the tree beyond the coffee table.
Dad’s voice rumbles over the photograph, reading the story that, though I am only five or six, is already so familiar to me. “In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.”
I look at the tiny cardboard stable, with the little ceramic figurines gathered inside. In later years, it is my job to set up that scene, to arrange each figure with the best view of Baby Jesus, but that year, I just look. I try to put life into the silent figures as Dad reads the story. Mary and Joseph kneel. An angel hangs above them and another sits among the sheep. One of the shepherds is black.
“But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.’”
My brothers squirm on the other side of the coffee table. I see that they are staring at the presents under the tree. We’ve watched those presents appear there, but we haven’t dared to touch them. Now, finally, it is Christmas Day. It is time to discover what treasures are hidden beneath the brightly coloured paper. But first, as always, we start with the Christmas story.
“In those days Caesar August issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town register.”
I feel impatient as Dad’s voice drones on through the chapters of the story. I wish that he could read faster, but he is a good reader, speaking clearly and evenly. And so I look at the Nativity scene, the presents, the tree that was chopped down somewhere on the farm and now stands in Grandma’s living room, the brown shag carpet. In later years, we will lose this tradition of reading the Christmas story. Presents will take precedence on Christmas Day, and I will miss listening to the old familiar story. But that year, I wish we could skip the tradition.
“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, for there was no room for them in the inn.”
I remember two of the presents that I got that year. One was a stuffed blue bunny that I promptly christened Fuzzy. And when, like every child, I felt an urge to try out a pair of scissors, it wasn’t my own hair that suffered, but Fuzzy’s. He gained a slightly shorter set of moustaches. The other present was a lacey bag of potpourri, that has left bits of potpourri in my dresser drawers ever since and is now probably only half the size that it was then. I cherish those presents still, and the sepia-toned memories that accompany them.
“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.’”
Verses taken from the Gospel of Luke.