(and what I did to them when I got them)
I wrote this piece in celebration of Christmas 2004.
I have always been captivated by nativity scenes. When I was very young, my mother would let me play every Christmas with the plastic set she’d gotten for her first apartment, which had everything a kid just learning about the embellishments of Luke could want. It had two sheep. It had an angel whose name, according to the banner she carried, was “Gloria.” It had three identical Wise Men riding three identical camels, which got me in trouble years later when I asked a pastor, quite innocently, “Balthazar – he was the blue one, right?” It had a shepherd and a Joseph so twisted by scoliosis they could neither lean on their shepherd’s crooks nor put them down. It had a Mary in a state of hand-raising, mouth-gaping terror. And it had a Baby Jesus affixed permanently to his manger, presumably so he couldn’t totter off and change the water in the goldfish bowl into wine when his mother wasn’t looking.
This was the Nativity scene of my youth, and it was this set, less the wise men, that I inherited when I moved into my first apartment. I also got the set I had made out of fabric scraps and bits of wood when I was twelve. This set had its wise men. It also had two major flaws. Its first flaw was that, thanks to my artistic genius, no one could tell any of the characters apart from the others except Mary, whose head was made of blue satin. Its second flaw was that Baby Jesus was a felt square wrapped around a puff of cotton. While Christianity is a tradition rich in symbol and myth, and while it honors the teaching gleaned from meditations upon such, it is impossible, no matter how one tries, to meditate upon the promises of a felt square wrapped around a puff of cotton – especially when said puff’s hot glue is showing.
Therefore, I thought it rather clever of me to pick up a Nativity scene, complete with Wise Men, from the local Goodwill for less than five dollars. And it was. The four-dollar nine-piece hand-painted crèche scene was perfect – until I got it home.
Your typical nine-piece Nativity set roll call goes something like this: Mary-Joseph-baby-shepherd-angel-wise man-wise man-wise man-sheep. Now, I expected the two sheep and cow in lieu of the angel or shepherd, since the front of the box prepared me for this eventuality. Baby and Joseph were also present and accounted for. What I did not expect, however, were the last four in line: wise man-wise man-Mary-Mary. In their haste to label the box “hand-crafted and hand-painted,” the manufacturers left out the larger selling point: “33% less wisdom – twice the virginity!”
Now my Shoebox O’ Advent contains one plastic Nativity set sans Wise Men, one wood-and-fabric Nativity set sans recognizable characters, and one ceramic Nativity set with twin Virgin Mothers of God. I’ve heard of attempts to explain virgin birth scientifically, but I think even science had to give up in the face of two equally shocked ceramic women giving birth to the exact same child.
However, as so often happens at Christmas, some good came from this mismatched crew. I still did not own three recognizable Wise Men, but I did own three recognizable men. My first impulse was, with a little gold paint, to spiff Joseph up and make him a stand-in for my missing Magus.* However, I don’t have any gold paint.
I do have ducks.
Included in the Nativity set I made when I was twelve are an assortment of animals fashioned from pipe cleaners, among which are two ducks. The ducks are the simplest of the animals, since their entire construction consists of two inches of yellow pipe cleaner bent into a circle with one end sticking up to serve for a head. They’re also the perfect size to crown Joseph.
Henceforth, my Three Wise Men shall be known as Caspar, Melchior, and Duckthazar, who is the Discordian Wise Man. He brings Baby Jesus the gift of laughter. Given what the poor kid’s in for, he’ll need it.