The nativity set
By Barbara Canale
SUN Contributing Writer
When I was 18, I spent countless hours at a hobby shop making a ceramic nativity set. I worked on the project over a year. It took a long time because there were so many labor intensive steps involved. First, a liquid concoction had to be mixed, measured and poured into a special mold. When firm and dried, it needed to be sanded smooth and fired in a kiln before it could be painted. I decorated each piece with exquisite detail. I put a lot of love into it because I was making it for the family I knew I would have someday. Since God made me, He knew that I wanted to marry the right man, the one worth waiting for, and children. I was making the nativity set in preparation for that future family.
Mary was the first figurine to be created. She was more work than I imagined and I had doubts about my artistic abilities. I wanted Mary to be perfect, but her hair was the wrong color and her face too plain. When she was finished, I wasn’t satisfied with my work. I made another one, but that too wasn’t what I had hoped for. So, I made a third. I had the three Mary figurines queued. I wasn’t off to a good start. If I kept that pace up, I would have the oddest nativity set around.
“What’s the matter?” my dad asked, eyeing my collection.
“They’re not good enough,” I whined. I shoved my seat away from the ceramic table and frowned.
Dad examined each one. “I don’t see anything wrong with these,” he said. “Each one is fantastic.” He cleared his throat and looked over the rim of his glasses. “Keep going. You’re doing a great job. Don’t stop.”
I reached for the baby Jesus mold and worked on that next. When it was finished it didn’t look exceptional. I especially wanted Mary and Jesus to be the two most spectacular pieces in the collection. Instead, I had two ordinary figurines before me. I considered quitting the project. By the time Joseph was in my hands I became more creative with paint. I added texture to his shawl and gave his robe a unique brocade trim. He looked fantastic. It was the impetuous I needed to forge onward in the dusty hobby shop.
It was hazy, hot and humid when I began working on a sheep assembly line. I wondered how many I needed to make. What would be a good amount? I tried to imagine what the completed set would look like. Did I want sheep sprawling all over the place, or just a few? I remembered playing with my parent’s nativity set when I was a child. I paired the sheep up one day and encircled Baby Jesus the next. I loved arranging them, and for the first time I tried to imagine my own children doing that with the set I was working on. I decided to make as many sheep as I could. I tried to make each one unique. Some were gray, others black or white, with different colored faces, and subtle differences on others. I wanted the sheep to be symbolic of the flock of followers that fill the church pews at mass each Sunday.
Satisfied with each ceramic piece, I carefully wrapped them all in tissue paper and bubble wrap, and stored them in a large cardboard box. Dad safeguarded it until the first Christmas Pat and I celebrated together as husband and wife. As I carefully unfurled the wrapper around each figurine, I was in awe of the ornate decorations I made with a few strokes of a paintbrush. Each piece had my personal touch. Pat contributed by building a manger from scraps of lumber. That Christmas I felt blessed to have that very special nativity set arranged under our first tree. I couldn’t wait for children to be added to our family. I had enormous faith in God.
When Juliana was a baby, she was particularly fond of the sheep. She paraded them around the crèche and encouraged Andrea to play with them also. It didn’t take long before there were nicks and scratches, and a few chipped ears and tails. I appreciated that the girls were putting their own personal touches on the set. One year they kept their beanie babies inside the manager to keep Jesus, Mary, and Joseph company.
In elementary school their ideas to improve the manager were welcomed. One year we covered the ground with straw. Another year we painted the manager and added moss to the roof. The following year we added silver stars overhead. Another year we added a light to illuminate the inside. Every year we tried to add something special.
Now we have burlap bags of feed and bails of hay. We have a troth filled with tiny bits of grain. We have vines, plants and rocks. This isn’t how I imagined the nativity set would look when I started making it 30 years ago. I like it more now with everyone’s distinctive touch added to it. Our nativity set has been a lot like us, a work in progress that has transformed over the years.
I can’t believe that I started making it when I was a just a kid, and I am amazed that I had such steadfast faith in God that He would put the perfect husband in my path at just the right time. I believed that when children didn’t automatically come to me and Pat, God wanted me to keep believing that He would provide. And He did! I’m reminded of this every time I look at the nativity set. Life is not always easy. There are times when I feel the scratches and nicks of life that could easily distract and disorient me. Like the sheep, they add to my character and make me unique and spectacular. When I look at our nativity set I see much more than a stable filled with ceramic figurines. I see the miracle of life.