Sharon received the nativity set as part of
her inheritance when her Nana died, leaving her a set of china and the old
Christmas set that she and Sharon used to admire together. Nana understood what it meant to the girl, as
she turned each piece over in her small hands, noticing each piece’s detail and
shiny glaze over the pastel colors.
Sharon unpacked it each Christmas with the
same wonder, actually managing to pass on the same admiration to her three
children, Rodney, Eric and Elsie (the only girl, named after Nana). Each Christmas Ben would bring in the
decorations, boxes of dusty baubles they had accumulated over the years. Piece by piece, the family would unpack the
stuff and transform their normal house into the lighted wonder that Christmas
Today, Sharon unpacked by herself. Ben was always working and the kids had long
since grown and moved away. Rodney was
always on a ship, Eric closed commercial real estate deals in Nantucket and
Elsie was busy with four kids of her own.
It didn’t stop her from working full time and paying a Nanny. Sharon wished she were closer so that she
“It wouldn’t matter,” Elsie told her one
“Why do you say that?” Sharon tried hard
not to be offended.
“They love their Nanny and they have their
“Don’t take it personally, Mom.”
“I’m tired of you taking things personally.”
“Besides, you were the one who moved in the
She always said that to her: You were the one who moved in the first
place. You were the one who left for
Costa Rica. You and Dad decided to
follow your dream and work in international ministry. Remember?
Sharon did remember. She loved Costa Rica and the people, so rich
in culture and vibrant. Hungry for God
and what she and Ben brought in their own small way.
It turned out Ben was part of the well-oiled
machine that brought the Gospel to the people.
He worked tirelessly to build up the local churches. He was part of the well-oiled Gospel machine,
cheered on by their wives, who made it possible for the men to travel. The men thought Sharon was a curiosity when
she wanted to come along.
“Explain to your wife that it’s a men only
trip this time,” she overheard the team leader say to Ben one evening at a
planning meeting. As she and the other
wives laid out the mango and bread plate, she held back tears, knowing she
would never really be part of the work they came to do.
Eventually, Sharon longed for home, especially
to see the children born to her own children.
She longed to reestablish relationship with her own mother and father,
who were growing older. She missed her
Eventually Ben realized they were finished
and they both returned home to Omaha, a city caught up in first-world
pleasures. Sharon wasn’t quite comfortable
settling into life in America, but she didn’t want to seem ungrateful for their
new home and the job Ben had returned to.
“Are you happy?” He asked her one evening
as she finished cleaning the dinner dishes.
He was asking her after a day of visiting Elsie and the kids in nearby
Dundee. They had been happy to see her
and were beginning to not forget her name: Nana.
“Yes,” she smiled. Her own Nana had such an impact on her life
and she wanted to have the same on her own grandchildren.
Back to the nativity set.
Sharon unpacked it, turning each piece over
in her hands, noticing the paint and glaze on each one. She now knew that it
was a mass-produced nativity set, available at any Sears and Roebuck when Nana
was still alive.
Still, it was the Gospel.
A baby was born to a mother and a foster-father,
far from home in the most humble of circumstances. He was given a strange bedroom and a manger
to lie in after his mother wrapped in swaddling, the traditional Jewish way to
papoose a baby.
That baby, with the halo around his head,
was born for all people, do deliver them from sin and death.
A tear escaped Sharon’s eye.
When did it all get so polluted?
After Ben and Rodney fought, their son had
impulsively joined the Navy and now rarely called them. She could count on one hand the times she talked
to him while they were in Costa Rica. Each conversation was strained and Sharon
knew it was all her fault.
This year, their
Christmas card to Rodney came back, unopened.
Sharon was unsure if she had the wrong address or if Rodney had refused it
at the Post office. She didn’t have any
contact details for him and Elsie said she was told not to share with Mom and
Dad how to reach him.
Rodney had been badly burned by church, the
people who were supposed to be safe.
They never quite looked at him with acceptance but only gave him funny
nick names and a cold shoulder. They
encouraged Ben and Sharon to get counseling for their hyperactive son and they
did, betraying his confidence as they subjected him to testing, analysis and
the opinions of the most confused people they had ever met.
It wasn’t long before Rodney’s rebellion
started and then the open fights with Ben.
He asked Rodney to leave one night, saying that he had the other
children to think about. Rodney was only
too happy to go, saying they were the ones who were messed up.
In the end, Rodney was right. His own issues were nothing compared to the
issues that were in their church: Judgment. Razors. Exclusivity. In the end, Sharon could see that the church
wanted to evangelize more people who looked like they did. Businessmen; stock-brokers; lawyers.
The manger holding the child with the halo
grew warm in Sharon’s hands.
She placed it in the straw, covering the
shiny legs with the curly shaved wood she bought from Hobby Lobby as soon as
they returned to the states. There was
no Hobby Lobby in Costa Rica.
“There you go.” Sharon talked to the figure
just like Nana used to.
Nana would speak like the figurines could hear her. To the donkey, as she lay him in layers of
cotton balls in the stable: “There, there. You've had a long journey! Rest awhile here. You’re safe and warm now.”
Sharon unpacked each piece and stopped at
Joseph, the foster-father of the baby.
He was holding a staff; Nana said he used it for walking all that way
from Galilee. He was kneeling down and looking adoringly
south-west. Nana always placed him over
the baby, and Joseph was happy to kneel with his hand on his heart looking at
Did he know?
Did Joseph know, really that Jesus would eventually
upset the government of Rome and be charged with sedition and shame his whole
family? Did he know, as he looked
adoringly at the baby in the manger, that he would be the pivotal person that would
divide the Jewish religion? Did he know Jesus would make it possible for
Jews to talk directly with God? Speak
his name? Allow women in the Holy of
Sharon nearly dropped the figure when she heard
the ringing of her cell phone. It was
Elsie, and she laid Joseph down to pick up her daughter’s call.
“Hi Mom, what are you doing?”
“I’m actually setting up Christmas
“Yeah, that’s why I’m calling.”
Sharon smiled. “Really?”
“It’s the first Monday in December and we
always did it then, didn’t we?”
“We sure did.”
“Are you crying?”
Sharon wiped tears away, realizing only then that she was. It was hopeless to try and hide from her
intuitive daughter, who had always exhibited traits of a Biblical prophet.
“Don’t worry, Mom.”
“Have you gotten to the nativity set yet?”
Sharon felt hot, fat tears leaving her eyes. She knew better than to blow her nose or
sniffle, giving away the grief she felt for everything.
“He’s going to call you today.”
“What?” Sharon reached for a tissue and
wiped away her dripping nose.
“Rodney just called me and said ‘Do you
think Mom is setting up the house now that she’s back?’”
“Is he on land?”
He’s got a desk job now.”
“He’s going to call today?”
“Yeah, he said he would.” Elsie cleared her throat and got to the point
of her call. “Don’t start apologizing
all over the place for years of stuff, Mom.
That’s just gonna freak him out.”
Sharon didn’t know whether to be offended
or smile. “I won’t….”
Take a piece of paper and write on it: ‘DON’T apologize for years of
crap!’ and then when he calls take the piece of paper and hold it in your
hands. Do you hear me?”
Sharon nodded, saddened and weak. “You still love me, don’t you, my girl?”
Elsie sighed heavily. “Mom, there’s not enough assurance in the
world to make you feel better.”
The statement stung. Sharon grimaced and tilted her head. “When’s the last time you talked to Eric?”
“Did you get his email?”
“Yes,” Sharon didn’t think Eric’s last
email was anything special. It was just
a recap of the last three deals that closed.
It assured him, he wrote, that he would have a Happy Christmas.
“Well, you know he’s coming to Omaha for
Christmas, don’t you?”
Sharon was nonplussed and shook her
head. “Really?” she said out loud,
realizing Elsie couldn’t see her.
“Yeah, he comes and sleeps over at my
“Why can’t he stay here?”
“Maybe you can invite him.” Sharon heard a shuffling on the other end of
the phone and Elsie spoke up again. “Mom,
I have to go. Remember to write that
down on a piece of paper – right now before you forget.”
There was a click, then Sharon’s cat, Fifi
appeared on the screen of her phone.
“Paper…” Sharon mumbled to herself as she
rose to get a spiral bound notebook from the kitchen. She found one with an old grocery list on it –
one from Costa Rica. “Mango, tea, sugar,
She smiled and a stab of pain came into her
heart, remembering the beach church they had; all their friends and their
children running around mish-mash everywhere.
How much Costa Rica had changed her.
She wrote in big letters: “DON’T APOLOGIZE
FOR YEARS OF CRAP!”
She returned to the nativity set, laying
her phone down on the spiral notebook, both within reach. Later she would email Eric, inviting him to
stay in their new guest room. She knew
she would have to clear a place for him; move boxes and clear off the old
bookshelf. Maybe when Rodney called she
could invite him too. It was a shame
they didn’t have bunk beds anymore.
The dog. Mary.
Sharon held Mary in her hands and
remembered Nana’s voice. “You’ve come so
far. You were nine months pregnant and
had to make that journey on the back of a donkey. Now when you got here, it wasn’t like you
thought it would be, was it? Where’s
your bed? Where’s your baby’s bed? Can’t you get a little privacy? Why is that cow looking at me?”
As if a mist descended, Sharon could feel her Nana with her. She could almost feel her touch; almost hear
“Don’t worry, mija. Everything will work out fine. It’s Christmas.”