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Away in a Manger

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Far from the commercialism of Christmas lies the true meaning of the holiday

manger.jpgFor as joyful as the holiday season can be, it possesses the ability to disrupt the normalcy in our everyday lives. The pressure is on for you to perform in ways not typically expected at other times of the year: You’ve been trying to eat healthfully and watch your waistline, and now you have free rein to gorge on copious amounts of food and alcohol. You’ve been trying hard to make more frugal financial decisions, but now you’ll be throwing cash out the window, spending it on toys and gifts for your loved ones and friends across the board. Don’t forget, you’re also supposed to relax during what is ultimately the most stressful time of the year, filled with shopping, wrapping, cleaning, cooking, spending, traveling and all-out entertaining. No wonder everyone feels so compelled to make New Year’s resolutions; we’ve just let ourselves go so far beyond the borders of selfrestraint that now we crave control.

I can remember simpler holiday times, and inevitably, they stem from my childhood days. Basically, I got showered with presents, got to decorate Christmas trees, got to eat my fair or even unfair share of cookies, got to wear velvet outfits and got to see all my relatives. And I got to see the legendary Aunt Josie nativity set.

Aunt Josie was essentially the Grandma Moses of the Fontana family. She was my great-grandfather Nolie’s sister, and she was blessed with true artistic talent. Some of Aunt Josie’s creations clearly indicated that they were made with the trembling hands of an elderly woman, which added even more sentimental appeal to her art. She would oil paint French Quarter scenes onto tiles and fire up the kiln in her garage to create ceramic pieces that she would bestow onto the entire family. My grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles would all get an Aunt Josie big-mouthed ceramic bass figurine, painted blue, pink or green; or an Aunt Josie scissors holder with a Bible passage and praying hands across the front of it. For my first Christmas, Aunt Josie gave my parents a smallish ceramic Christmas tree dotted with plastic, colored lights that was actually functional and would light up a room. It still works today, although its pine-green paint bares plenty of chips, and many of the lights are missing. Still, it brings a smile to our faces to see it this time of year.

But the pièce de résistance of my sweet elderly aunt’s entire artistic compendium was unquestionably the elaborate hand-painted nativity set she made; we’d call it the Aunt Josie Manger. It consisted of the whole cast of Christian characters in attendance at the birth of Jesus in individual ceramic form, with Mary and Joseph admiring Baby Jesus in his manger, the Three Wise Men and various shepherds, all contained in a large wooden barn housing farm animals like a donkey, an ox, a camel and some sheep. A beautiful angel and a glowing Star of Bethlehem hovered over the whole peaceful scene. Aunt Josie’s brother, Uncle Angelo, must have wired it up for electricity, because a lightbulb shined from behind and illuminated it all. It was magical. I could sit and look at this three-dimensional crèche forever in utter fascination, thinking of how much I loved Christmas and being with my family. I would pray that the figurines might come to life and speak to me, or I would pray that I might be able to have a tiny nativity-size sheep for a pet one day. Sometimes one of the Wise Men (who were sort of the same stature as a Barbie doll) would wind up off-campus, and go for a spin in Barbie’s Corvette, winding up in Barbie’s townhouse. And if I was wearing something with pockets, it is safe to say that I had Baby Jesus tucked away close to me during Christmas dinner, swaddled in Kleenex or toilet paper to blanket him and keep him warm and comfortable, with the same consideration a mama kangaroo gives her joey. And I always put everyone back in their rightful places before I’d go.

Today, another thing on our holiday “to do” list is to remain merry, jolly and festive throughout this season of indulging, yet there’s no better time of year to become contemplative over our loved ones who are no longer with us. Aunt Josie passed away years ago while in her 90s, but the memories of her and all the old folks and other beloved family members who are gone remain alive, and they’re especially represented in items like that enchanting nativity scene. My mom and dad have a small department store nativity set, with all the plastic pieces glued to a cardboard bottom, but of course it has none of the personality or sentimentality of the Aunt Josie manger.

My mamaw and papaw have the Aunt Josie nativity set at their home, but since it can be quite a task to put together, it hasn’t been set up in a few years. I do believe this is the year that it should make an appearance again. I will be knocking on their door soon, offering my nativity set display services at a bargain. I will arrange those animals and Wise Men and the Holy Family right where they should be, and I’ll place the angel high above to watch over them all. I want to see that manger and be taken away to a soothing place, away from the commercialism, stress and pain of the holidays. I want to look into that fascinating manger and be reminded of what the meaning of Christmas should truly be about, and that includes the preciousness of family, friendship and love.

Holiday party catered at home: $800. Diamond bracelet for Christmas: $5,000. Luxury sports car for Christmas: $75,000. Aunt Josie manger for Christmas: PRICELESS. If you ever had an Aunt Josie in your family, you know exactly what I’m talking about.