The Christmas market in the town square looked beautiful. There was a large Christmas tree and a manger with life-sized figures. Real sheep and goats roamed around the nativity scene. My mother was thrilled. My father was more interested in the booths selling food and beverages.
First, I followed my father to the food section. The men there were busy talking about absolutely nothing interesting, so I went to have a look at the kids’ nativity area and watched the sheep. A Christ Child with a silver dress and golden hair danced around. A brass band played at the other side of the square. A choir sang Christmas songs.
My mother was anxiously looking in the craft booths. It was only 4 o’clock in the afternoon, but it was already dark, and she couldn’t seem to find any Christmas presents. She was annoyed that Dad wasn’t helping her with the gift buying.
Suddenly, I spotted a booth that looked a little different. My mother had stopped, too. Fascinated, she pointed at a little nativity scene. “Look,” she said, “isn’t it beautiful?”
There was a wooden stable with a star above it. The figures, Mary, Joseph, the manger, the ox, and the donkey, were all made of clay. A shepherd, who appeared to be herding a few sheep, stood outside the stable. On the right there was a figure that was probably supposed to be an angel. It was very unusual. He had a large face and was earthy brown. He looked a little like our neighbor who had Down syndrome. And then I noticed that this booth belonged to a workshop for people with disabilities.
The disabled workers had made the nativity themselves—the wooden stable as well as the clay figures. I thought this was the most beautiful nativity in the whole Christmas market. It was much nicer than the factory-made ones.
Of course, my mother had to buy it. The workers wrapped each figure in tissue paper and laid them carefully in a box. Mom dragged Dad away from his friends and made him carry the stable.
Once we got back home, Mom unwrapped the nativity. “I’ll set it up on the sideboard right away,” she said. “Maybe that will give us all a little Christmas spirit.” I braced myself for a lengthy complaint about Dad’s lack of Christmas spirit and the stress of the season.
Mom cleaned off the sideboard and placed the wooden stable on it. Then we carefully unpacked the figures and set them inside: Mary, Joseph, the manger, the ox, the donkey, and the angel with Down syndrome. Mom was delighted. Dad had fallen asleep on the living room couch.
Suddenly, my mom froze. “The child is missing!” she shouted.
“I’m right here!” I said.
“Don’t be silly, Frank!” Mom said. “I meant the child in the manger. It’s missing!” Sure enough—the manger was empty.
I could have predicted word for word the list of complaints that would come now. The worker hadn’t packed the child. He had dropped it next to the box. He had stepped on it. It had fallen out of the box on the way home (although this possibility was highly unlikely). It had fallen on the floor as we were unpacking. And, of course, it was all Dad’s fault because poor Mom had to do everything.
We began searching the floor. I crawled under the table. I found cake crumbs, a marble, and a safety pin, but no Christ Child. I looked behind the sideboard. I found a smelly, old sock, but no Christ Child. Mom was ready to get dressed and retrace the entire way back to the Christmas market to look for the child.
“It’s dark,” said my father from the couch. “You wouldn’t find it even if it were life sized.”
I stood before the sideboard and peered into the manger. I could not remember what the child had looked like. “Perhaps there was no Christ Child,” I said.
“Nonsense!” said Mother. “There is no such thing as a manger without a Christ Child.” Somehow, she was right.
Dad had reluctantly joined the search. I examined the figures more closely: Joseph dressed in brown, the empty manger, the ox lying down, the donkey standing upright, the sheep with its curly, white wool, the shepherd in a wide, green cloak, the angel with Down syndrome, and gentle Mary, dressed in blue.
And then I saw it—tiny, barely noticeable, and extremely snug.
“There it is,” I said. “The child. There, don’t you see? Mary has taken it into her arms.”
In that one silent moment, it seemed that all the stress, arguments, and worries of the season had fallen away.
The three of us stood in wonder and, just like the family in the stable, we gazed at that small, perfect child nestled in his mother’s arms. Never in my life had I seen such a nativity.