Gathering Place
Arnold Van Fossen

Christmas brings forth
a manger full of memories

Early memories of Christmas are muddled, at least in my mind. However, the one item that always appeared in our living room was a highly decorated Christmas tree. An evergreen tree of whatever flavor still contributes to the memory of Christmas. Long after a real tree was used, a tree simply had to be there by the 25th of December. Circling under the tree was a series of electric trains, some very large, some very small. There was a village of sorts, with a mixture of houses produced in a time warp. The villagers also came from an array of cultures and time periods. There were cast iron flappers from the 1920s. An earlier group of carved wooden people and their flocks and herds came from my grandfather's father. There were pressed sawdust figures. And there were celluloid animals from an assortment of farmyards.

All were there each and every year. If an animal had an amputation due to some child's enthusiasm, the animal reappeared the following year either mended or standing on three legs. Some animals leaned against buildings or other animals, limbs missing or simply tired. My father would not abide the loss of the family collection.

Also under the tree stood the manger. A wooden slab-and-pole manger with room on the top for an angel; a golden robed angel. The angel flew guard over the figures in the hay below. Mary was a pressed sawdust figure, painted blue with a gentle face and more than a few scratches in her paint. Joseph wore his brown woolen garment, which flowed down to the straw where his feet would have stood if he had not lost them to my younger brother's teething. The tiny baby Jesus lay in a three-legged manger that had a wooden match stick impressed into service to make it stand upright.

There were animals of every description. Woolly sheep with real wool grazed in the dried hay. Camels pressed from sawdust carried the three wise men, and then there were the cows. At least two celluloid cows, one badly crushed, leaned against the uprights of the manger. There were a few one-inch tall animals carved from wood that grazed our manger for 50 years. No one remembered who carved them or when they were carved. All agreed that they were carved prior to 1900.

The significance of the manger varied according to the family members in the house. My grandfather remembered each piece that came from his father. My mother unwrapped the toilet paper wrappings from the figures from her side of the family. The five children were all told to "keep your hands off and just look."

The religious significance of the tree and the manger in the Christmas yard was minimal. We all knew that the baby Jesus was the same guy they spoke about at Sunday School, but the full understanding of that message was years away.

This tableau under the tree was what Christmas was all about. A season of love with minimal fighting, Santa was watching. And if you were naughty, you might get a stocking full of coal. This was not to be sneezed at in those days because we burned coal in our furnace in the basement. The decorated tree in the living room meant that there would soon be wondrous smells coming from the kitchen. It meant that there would be many relatives arriving at the door with dishes full of cakes and cookies and some with presents. It meant that you were closer in mind and heart to those who were gone and who would not be coming for a slice of pie this Christmas.

Christmas on Elm Street remains there today. It remains in my mind, and as the years go by, I am sure there will be more ornaments on the tree in my memory than in actuality. The Christmas yard is dissipated. The houses, pine trees, people and manger are all spread within the family memories. I don't know where the angel is nor the baby Jesus, and it doesn't matter. A scorecard is not necessary. They still exist in memory. My father is gone. My baby brother is gone. All the grandparents are gone. But they will reappear in my Christmas on Elm Street this year as every year. Six thousand miles is but a short distance in one's memory book. It will be a wonderful Christmas again.

Arnold Van Fossen is an artist who lives in Waikiki.

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