By Brian Kantz
“Brian, I have something for you,” my mom said as she opened her car door and got out to give me a hug. I could tell by the thrill in her voice and the sparkle in her eyes – and the spring in her step after a long, leg-cramping drive – that this was going to be good. Really good. “It’s in the back seat.”
I looked through the window and read the words scrawled on the side of a familiar cardboard box: HOGAN FAMILY CRIB SET. My heart skipped a beat. Christmas had come early this year. I was inheriting the old family Nativity set.
I carried the box inside – it was just as heavy as I remembered – and began the careful task of unpacking it on the dining room table. They were all there. The red-cloaked king, the flute-playing shepherd, the tassle-saddled camel, and, of course, the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Still majestic, still resplendent, preserved in blankets of finely aged newspaper.
The set goes back, as far as my mom can figure, to the 1940s, when her parents purchased it from Henninger’s, the venerable religious goods store in Cleveland, Ohio, that is still going strong to this day. The figures are made of plaster and each stands about a foot tall. They’re expertly painted. The craftsmanship is exquisite. “They don’t make ’em like that anymore,” my dad noted for the record.
Opening that box opened a thousand wonderful memories from my childhood. At the beginning of every Christmas season, my three brothers and I would help arrange the Nativity scene in the cave that was our empty fireplace. Setting up the Nativity set was as important a holiday ritual in our house as decorating the Christmas tree.
We went about the task with reverence and care, but inevitably, through the years, one of us knocked over the shepherd, who lost his head; one of us dropped the baby Jesus, who broke a hand; and one of us chipped the cow’s ear. We were ruthless tattlers back then, but no one dared to point a finger when it came to accidental crimes against the Nativity set. Lucky for us, our forgiving mom always made things better by gluing the statues back together and reminding us over a cup of hot chocolate that “accidents do happen.”
Of course, she had been through that very same routine as a child: spending time arranging the Nativity set with her siblings, accidentally cracking the angel’s wing, being tenderly absolved by my grandmother.
“I think I might even still have a few pictures of Marge and me with this set when we were kids,” my mom said. “I’ll have to dig around.”
Sure enough, after she returned home, my mom emailed me a beautiful photo of her and her sister, gussied up in light blue dresses and hair ribbons, kneeling beside the set, which was carefully arranged on a bed of fresh hay. “Christmas 1949” was scrawled on the back of the photo.
And that’s what makes this particular Nativity set so special to me. Not only is it a beautiful reminder – especially for children – that the holiday season is more than just toys under a tree and candy in a stocking, it’s also a tangible connection to my family’s past.
A set handled and cared for by great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and children, one generation to the next. I’m very happy that I’ll be able to share the set with my wife and two sons this Christmas season, even if one of us does accidentally break a piece or two.