Editor's note: This article originally was written in 1996, and the "baby" is now a teenager.
I don't mind telling you I'm never an early riser, especially not with a baby who's a fitful sleeper, so I wasn't surprised that day to find someone else had beaten me to it. I wasn't even all that disappointed. This was, after all, an after-Christmas sale, and the whole store was the kind of mess we Americans have come to expect of that post-holy period. I figured if I looked hard enough I would still find what I was looking for-just not where it should have been. And behold, I was right.
But I was just about to give up and buy something different until I saw her . . . the Queen of Nativities, holding court at the front of the center aisle. A tall, well-dressed woman flanked by her elderly parents, the Queen stood surveying four or five renditions of the blessed scene and discussing their finer and less fine points rather loudly. I developed an immediate irritation with her, as she was holding my nativity captive, this arrogant woman who wanted everyone to know how she defined good taste.
Of course I hadn't paid for it yet, but I think you'll agree it was my nativity. You see, we have a daughter, my husband and I. She was 9 months old for her first Christmas, and in our strained budget talks we had decided that she was our "forever" gift, so perfect (well, maybe "delightful" is a better word; she was, after all, a baby, with a low sleep capacity and some peculiar eating habits, even as babies go) it wouldn't matter if either of us ever got any kind of Christmas gift again.
What we hadn't decided was how to communicate the season to our little heart-snatcher. Of course, Santa would take some appropriate action upon hearing she had been added to his list this year. Teaching her the "holly day" Christmas would be easy, but to tell you the truth, we really didn't consider right then how tough the "holy day" part would be.
It was a ticklish issue; we knew many fine folk who had decided just to ban Santa and glittery stuff and anything else that looked out of place in a Bethlehem stable. We, on the other hand, thought that particular stable could handle a considerably larger crowd than the inn had managed to do so many years back. The question, it seemed to us, had more to do with perspective.
But how to achieve the right balance? As usual, we didn't take time to think things through, and as usual, this holiday tipped the scales on the holly side. For the future, we decided a nativity scene in our living room would help us keep the holy uppermost in our minds. And after-Christmas sales offered the perfect opportunity for me to find one at a bargain price.
I had spotted a set I wanted for myself even before Christmas, but didn't buy it because it seemed overpriced and we did, after all, need to stretch our dollars to cover a few other things. But with higher motives to inspire my shopping, I decided this one really would be perfect. Big enough to place somewhere high and away from curious hands where it could remain a thing of beauty instead of getting knocked into a heap of rubble on the floor. Though the colors were tasteful, the wise men sported jewels sparkly enough to fascinate a child; the animals looked real, the baby cherubic, the parents serene. Of course, when I headed straight to its original place on the shelf that sale day, it was gone.
Which brings us back to the Queen. In retrospect, I realize that a few hundred other people could have taken my nativity home before she ever grabbed it, so late was my arrival and naive my belief that my intentions would be rewarded for their sheer goodness. But she was the one. And what really rankled was that her appearance suggested a woman who hardly needed to be scavenging for a deal in a bargain-store-garden-center-turned-after-Christmas-paradise/disaster-area.
I had a few words for her, and they weren't "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year." But this was hardly the time to be petty. I had a daughter to bring up right in a world gone very wrong, and I was convinced that this nativity would be just the kind of teaching tool to make my job easier.
So I wiped the chagrin off my face and began to skulk about, trying to determine where Her Royal Highness was headed in her proceedings. Obviously she was trying to decide which set to buy, and I wanted to grab my favorite and run for the nearest register in the event she ended up bestowing her disinclination upon it.
In not too many moments, HRH noticed me on the prowl and I rushed to explain the noble purpose behind my seemingly rude behavior. She countered with a noble purpose of her own: She was buying a nativity, possibly even two, to donate to her church. Her present indecision stemmed from her desire to please the Right Reverend X of said church with the appropriateness of the set to the decor in the house of worship where he (rather than the Almighty, I smirked to myself) presided.
It was altogether too much for me: that a preacher might quibble over how well a carefully chosen manger scene donated by a prosperous parishioner would blend into God's house. That indeed said parishioner would look a new mother in the eye when informed of her righteous plans and say, "Well, I'm going to take the one you like and another one, and I can call you if we decide not to keep your favorite."
But such is life on one of the biggest sale days of the year. As I reflect on these events, I am now reminded that the Christ child Himself snuggled into a most inappropriate bassinet because some innkeeper couldn't be troubled to deal with a pregnant woman's urgency right when the need for housing for Caesar's Giant Umpteenth Annual Come-to-Your-Census Pilgrimage was reaching its peak. But in my moment of discomfort I could only think mine was the kind of situation where I would least expect to see injustice served.
At any rate, she did take my name and number. In fact, she even called that afternoon-to let me know she was still debating the appropriate choice. I sized up her ego and audacity and the stress it was causing me and decided to forget the whole shooting match. It was obvious that something about my plan had not met with divine approval, as it certainly had shown no evidence of receiving God's blessing. Christmas would come again next year and we would figure out something. Surely there was a better way.
Or maybe not, I found myself thinking the next day as I hung up the phone after hearing from the Queen that she was returning my favorite to the store. We had made plans to meet at the exchange desk so that I would be able to buy it before anyone else had a chance to. I wondered briefly why I couldn't just meet her in the parking lot and give her the money, but was too exhausted with the silliness of the entire process to care. What mattered was that my daughter would learn, after all, that Christmas was not all about shopping-as long as I never told her this story, anyway.
My enthusiasm for the project returned as my husband and I admired the figurines all evening and talked of how we could suspend the angel just so, for maximum effect, and we resolved that our daughter's second Christmas would be as perfect as we could make it.
But before I knew it, it was another day and my phone was ringing again. And the pastor whose character I have already called to question had decided he wanted back the nativity that had now been paid for by, and given a loving home with, my family. Would I be so kind, the Queen wondered aloud, as to return the desired object to the store? I thought I detected a tone of humility in her question, or so I comforted myself as I hung up the phone.
It didn't matter. If this was about fairness, as I saw it, I needed to take the thing back. She had, after all, found it first, and had, after all, only agreed to let me have it if she and the Reverend decided they didn't want it.
Still, I could not figure out what God was doing up there while all of this was going on down here. Could He not see that I meant to honor Him with this plan, and that my plan was selfless, loving, hopeful, un-worldly? Just the opposite of what these other people were up to, they and their stingy little church full of mean-spirited folks with deep pockets?
I was on a roll, basking in my self-righteousness and martyrdom. Had Christmas really come to this, my mind continued, that a woman who could walk into any shop and pay full price for a perfectly lovely nativity scene would snatch a cheap one from the grasping hands of an innocent babe whose parents were toiling in financial straitjackets to allow her middle-aged mom to stay at home and bring up perhaps the only child they would ever have?
Heaven was silent.
The next day was Sunday, the college bowl season was in full swing, and the Queen was leaving in the afternoon for an out-of-town football game (one that my husband and I would've normally attended, but this year couldn't afford). She had at first contemplated sending her parents to meet me at the store to make the exchange, but her father had Alzheimer's and might get lost no matter how deftly her mother tried to steer him. I assured her that I would be prompt so that she could leave on time for her trip.
We met, the transaction was completed, and the Queen Mother observed to me in a private moment that she could not believe her daughter had put me through so much trouble and especially over such a thing. I protested politely that it really hadn't been a problem, then added truthfully that I was convinced God had wanted that nativity in His house instead of ours.
And why not? Would some struggling soul strike out for our house, 11 months hence, searching frantically for hope among the knick-knacks we had assembled to amuse our daughter and celebrate the season? And how much would our toddler really come to understand by looking at those figures: kings stricken with humility, shepherds enjoying first-class accommodations in a way they could never explain, a new mother with more on her mind than whether the diapers she used would make more trouble for the landfill?
Unless we did a lot more than set out the little crèche once a year, not much. Not much at all. In time, she would have understood that the easy way for Mommy and Daddy to communicate was to go out and buy the perfect prop, or better yet, let her do it. Certainly she would not have comprehended that people who love that manger baby don't care if they never get another Christmas gift of any kind.
I saw the Queen again not too long ago. She and her mother were slowly making their way across the parking lot of one of our new superstores. Her father was not around; I didn't want to know why. She was bending over her mother, a loving expression on her face, a patient pace to her gait. The picture was enough to make me speculate that HRH actually was only a nice lady with maybe a bit too much shrewdness in her dispensation of a dollar. I wanted to wish her "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year," but it was the wrong season. So I just stood there, blushing at what I had learned about myself.
God Save the Queen.