I hear a jingling and turn in time to see the branches giving way as an ornament slips off its branch and crashes through the desperately grabbing limbs below that miss its nimble bounces.
It rolls behind the manger scene as it hits the floor.
Bending to find the stray ornament, I set one of the wise men upright as I notice he'd been knocked over. That is when I also see that baby Jesus is missing.
I search under the tree, but only find the runaway ornament and a dozen scattered pine needles that have given up hold on their former branches to lie looking up into the tree full of lights.
I used to love looking up into the tree at Christmas when I was a kid. My uncle would come over the night before Christmas to sleep over and spend Christmas morning with us, and my sister and I would shut all the lights out in the living room except for the tree lights. We'd slide our heads under the tree and look up into the world of colored lights. The memory of the view, the scent of the tree, the sound of carols quietly playing on the record player, my uncle's clothes still cold from coming in, and my father's voice droning on in conversation with my aunt and mother still bring back that cozy Christmas spirit.
As I search behind the stable under the tree, there is still no sign of the baby in the manger.
"Violet," I call into the other room. "Do you know where baby Jesus is? He's not in the stable."
"Yes," she replies from behind her school book. "I put him in that cupboard with your books. He's not supposed to be in the stable until Christmas morning. That's how Grandma does it."
I remember that on Christmas day, we always sat around the tree before the presents had been opened,
the smell of fresh coffee from the adults' mugs, the excitement of Christmas morning almost too much to handle. Dad would pull out his big black Bible and open it to the familiar page at the beginning of one of the gospels and read us the story of how Mary and Joseph had found themselves heading off on a journey to a far away land to do some kind of political requirement: a taxing or counting of the people. It didn't make much sense to me as a child, but that didn't matter.
We were waiting for the right phrase.
The story didn't mean as much to me then. It has taken on new meaning for me with each passing year...the years I was a child, I was fascinated with the animals in the stall:
being born in a barn sounded like a fun thing to me then.
As I grew up and became a young woman, I wondered what it must have been like to be engaged and have an angel appear and tell you you would be giving birth to God's son,
the predicament of her betrothed, the man she loved, and how to tell him what the angel had said.
When I married and had my first baby, I suddenly saw her trip to the stable in new light,
and realized my childhood simplicity of how fun it would be to have a baby while animals looked on might have been a bit out of touch with reality.
Just the journey would have made my largely disproportionate silhouette and heavily pressured bones so uncomfortable, I would have wanted to sit on the ground in the middle of the star-lit night,
nobody wanting to take us in,
and cry my heart out loudly into the darkness.
I've been in our pasture on a starry night and wondered what it must have been like for a multitude of angels to appear singing music that must have sounded beyond incredible to a group of weary shepherds,
even more so in a world where symphonies and stereos did not exist.
I've traveled to far-away destinations and imagined how much faith it must have taken for men of great esteem and wealth to study and agree to saddle up their camels with not only provisions (as they had no rest stop gas stations with hot foods and helpful directions), but also carrying gifts for what must have been unknown expectations of who would be at the end of the journey of the star's leading.
Now, I watch in my own children's faces the joy and excitement that sparkle in their eyes.
"And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn." Luke 2:7
That was the phrase.
At those words, the baby Jesus would be put into the stable to the place that represented where he was born.
That moment, small as it was, always had a sense of recognition of the weight of that day,
all wrapped up in something so tender as a newborn baby,
while quietly breathing animals and a young virgin mother and nervous helping husband played their parts.
I open the cupboard door to check, and there is the little statue of the baby in the manger, carefully set on the side of a book. It's just a piece of inexpensive clay cast into a simple form,
but it holds the moments of memories that mark what the day is all about.
Later, from an ad I had heard at the store over the loud speaker,
that silly song about "Santa, baby....so hurry down the chimney tonight," lingers in my head,
and happens to emerge from my mouth.
My four year old looks up at me questioningly and asks,
"Baby Santa? I thought Christmas was about baby Jesus."
I smile and feel foolish and admit,
"You're right, Lillie. Christmas is about baby Jesus.
Thanks for reminding me."
"Away in a manger, no crib for His bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay."
-William James Kirkland