The late December sun travels through the window a good 20 feet before reaching this manger. The figurines, probably seventy years old , are still expectant. This story never changes. Mary may move closer to the baby one year or a sheep may make its way into the manger. All small changes; well, except for the year GI Joe made his appearance. Photo and text by Nancy McAtavey

December First
Nancy McAtavey

Continued from “The House at #45” on the Nov. 24 Work in Progress page 

December 1. This is the day that I have been waiting for. Today, after school Aunt Kitty and I will finish the nativity scene and light the window candles for the first time. 

But, this is not a good day for me at school. I cannot concentrate on my reading book. My arithmetic numbers do not add up right. I break my pencil, sharpen it and then break it again. And, it’s my turn to help Miss Bennett hand out milk at morning snack. I love to hold the  box out to each classmate, not handing it over until I hear a “please.” But, today, I walk between the rows and kerplunk the cardboard container goes down on each desk. 

Recess seems to last forever. I think, “Why can’t we just skip this and get on with the school day?”  After lunch, I look at the big clock on the front wall. The big hand is on the 12 and the little one is on the two. I sigh and return to coloring my snowman. I glance up again. The big hand is on the one. How can this day be so slow?

Finally, Miss Bennett says it’s time to put our coloring projects away. We can finish tomorrow, she adds. “This is good news,” I think to myself. Now the big hand of the clock is on the four. It’s time to go out to the hallway, to the  line of hooks buried by our coats and scarves and hats. We sit on the long wooden bench to pull on our rubber boots. Miss Bennett goes down the line, checking to make sure that we are coated, booted and hatted before we leave the building. 

When the bell rings, I run across the school yard and through the gate of the chain link fence to the sidewalk. Two houses down,  I turn the corner and run up the path to the big white house. I’m almost there.

Aunt Kitty’s face fills the half window; her warm breath  fogs the glass. And then the door opens and she stoops to hug the big ball of wool that is me. “I’m here! I’m home!” I exclaimed. “Today was so slow. I could not do my work. My brain did the wrong things. And, I think I forgot to say good-bye to Miss Bennett.” 

She smiles as she unbuttons my coat. “There, there. You’re fine. Just a little bit excited, that’s all. Now come into the kitchen. The milk is ready for the cocoa and I’ve made sugar cookies. You need energy to set up a manger.”

I sit at the big table and sip from a steaming mug. I bite the head off of a reindeer, letting the sugar sprinkles melt on my tongue. But, I can’t wait. “Let’s get started,” I announce. “We have to get to work. Mama will be home. We need to finish the manger and light all the candles before it’s dark.”

The top of the Stewart-Warner radio is covered with a thick blanket of cotton batting with a dusting of shiny snowflakes. The wooden manger is empty. My job is to finish the scene. To place each figure in its proper place. “Where did you get all these animals, the kings and shepherds?” I ask.

“Turn them over. What does it say on their bottoms?”

The tiny J. J. Newbury stickers are faded but I know my numbers and can read the prices: eight cents for a sheep, 15 cents for the gray donkey. I arrange and rearrange each small figure  as Aunt Kitty tells me the story of the nativity.

“Look at the wise men. Do you know what’s in their hands? They’re bringing gifts for the baby Jesus. And do you know how those shepherds found the baby? They followed the bright star that lit up the sky for miles around.”

I place Mary and Joseph in the manger and break up a few pieces of hay for the small wooden crib that sits between them. Then I carefully lay the baby Jesus in his bed. Finally, I place the angel and the star on the roof. I look out the dining room window. The street lights are on. “It’s time,” I say.

I follow Aunt Kitty from room to room, up and down the stairs and across the hall as she plugs in each candle. The bright orange light fills each darkened window as we make our way back to the dining room. “Just one more,” I tell her.  And she plugs in the string of colored bulbs that frame the stable. “It is SO pretty! It is SO beautiful!” I proclaim. “I did SUCH a good job!”

A car turns from Broadway onto New York Street. I know it’s my mother. I know she’s coming home to me. I know she can see the window candles. And, when she opens the back door, I pull her through to the dining room even though she’s still in her heavy coat and wet rubber boots. 

“It’s beautiful, Nancy,”  my mother says.  “It’s the most beautiful manger scene ever.”