Once I took a Reality Field Trip to Mexico with a fun group of students and parents. That trip took us shopping of course to a flea market. I stopped by a stall that had the most beautiful and simple Nativity scenes. Each figure was made of clay and each figure because they were hand painted was unique and different. I guess I ooo-and-ah-ed quite a while there because on our final morning, in the hotel lobby the kids and parents presented me with a lovely Nativity scene, a thank you for organizing and chaperoning the trip! I knew right away this would be a Christmas present I would treasure for a lifetime. I took out a few figures nestled in shredded newspaper and thanked them from the bottom of my heart.
It wasn’t until I got home unpacked and excitedly set out the pieces on the coffee table to share this treasure with my husband that he asked,
“Hey, where’s the Baby Jesus?”
“What?,” I was incredulous.
We emptied the whole box of shredded paper the figures were packed in safely on the carpet, and then our fingers combed through it all never finding the Baby Jesus. We searched over and over still in denial. “It must be here! There’s Mary and Joseph, three Wise Men, a shepherd, 4 sheep, a cow and an angel.” 12 figures.
And then it dawned on me. My dad had taught me a lesson shopping in an open air market. We had always enjoyed the colorful blown glasses from Mexico on the table for dinner, so with each trip back we always bought more glasses to replenish the broken ones. I remember my dad and I chose a dozen glasses, golden in color similar to the shape we already had at home. I chattered with my dad about other purchases and the vendor packed everything into our shopping bag. But…before we left, Dad reached in and counted very matter-of-factly, “uno, dos, tres,…once. ¿Dónde está doce? Pero, señor ¿dónde está el número doce?” The vendor didn’t even double check my dad’s count. “O aquí está, señor,” and he handed the twelfth glass over smiling a broad respectful grin and there was an exchange of looks that lasted longer than a glance. Yes, it was a look of respect the vendor gave my dad for not having fallen for his trick.
“Daddy, he didn’t even double check your count?” My dad just smiled.
We didn’t say any more about it, but I had some thoughts that I kept to myself. “Hmmm… if that vendor encounters enough unwitting customers in a day, he’s a whole dozen ahead,” I thought to myself. We didn’t really discuss it, just knew it was the reality of shopping in the flea market. Clever? Dishonest? A game, the vendor plays? I opted for the latter because it resulted in a knowing exchange of looks.
Back to the Nativity gift. My brother who was in Germany asked what I wanted for Christmas that year.
I told him, “You know, I have the loveliest Nativity scene, but it doesn’t have the Baby Jesus. Can you find me one about 2″ high in a manger by 3.5″ long? It would be perfect to have a distinct wooden figure in the center among the other clay figures.”
“Is that all? No Hummel figure? No Christmas ornaments?” my brother confirmed.
My husband and I enjoyed our wooden figure and it turned out it was just the right size. Over the years friends have traveled to Saudi Arabia and Israel. “What can we bring you back?” they have asked.
“A small figure to add to my Nativity scene,” I have told them.
So, over the years we have added brass camels from Saudi Arabia, olivewood sheep and camels from Israel, and still another camel and elephant from India. I love our eclectic scene. The clay, the wood and the metal. Soft, firm and very strong. In Genesis we are told that God formed man from the dust of the ground, from the clay of the earth. James Joyce uses it as a symbol for what is common and mundane. The holy Tabernacle was framed in acacia wood. Brass is symbolic of sin. It is a mixed metal, impure when compared to silver or gold. The Torah uses it to symbolize judgment. I marvel how these figures all reside together now.