The Toothpick-Legged Sheep

When I was growing up, we, like many families, had a manger scene. It was set up in our dining room each December. My mom would pull out a few encyclopedias (remember those?) off the shelf in our den, stack them on the “little buffet” table to the side of our dining room table, and then gently unfold and spread out a piece of green velvet that was reserved for this one special role. Together they became a verdant, green hill. 

Then we would take the lid off the sturdy white J. M. Towne department store box and unwrap the cast of characters from their blankets of yellowing tissue paper. This tissue paper, probably from circa 1965, was invincible. It was used and reused and not going anywhere. It smelled of mustiness and evergreens, and still retained a bit of the cold from being stored up in our attic. 

There was Mary. Joseph. The manger and then a separate Baby Jesus you could take out (and hide in the top drawer until Christmas morning when he was officially “born”).  A shepherd. A herd of sheep. A donkey. Two cows. Three wise men. A camel. And an angel. 

The angel stood on top of the velvet hill, overlooking the mother and father with the manger positioned between them. And then the animals, shepherd, and wise men took their places. 

Because our manger scene was so prominently displayed on a low side table,  it was attractive to the little hands of my nieces and nephews. But it was never considered off-limits. So, the scene might be re-arranged, and suddenly the angel was accompanied by a camel and a wiseman, Joseph was manning the manger and Mary was out on the dining room table along with the sheep, who were now having a picnic with my mom’s collection of assorted pig figurines and miniature pretend foods. It was like a Catholic Calico Critters set. 

After years and years, the set got a little bit chipped—the patina of play. But of all the figures, the sheep really took the brunt of it. Their delicate carved legs were individually positioned perfectly by the good people at Fontanini so that the sheep could be balanced and stand on their own (today’s toy manufacturers should take note). Even though each sheep was designed to be slightly different from the others, with a neck turned slightly, or a foot lifted a bit as if mid-step, they could stand. That is, until, they couldn’t.

Where did those wayward legs go? No one knows, I guess. Because, if found, my Mom would have reused them using her trusty glue gun. But these were fairly down-and-dirty repairs. I bet I can guess the reason. My Mom had 6 children of her own, upwards of 15 grandchildren (at the time, #16 didn’t come until 2012), and she was the Keeper of all the Christmas Magic. It’s not like she had time to whittle new sheep appendages. 

The first sheep to lose an extremity was given a prosthetic. But not a discreet one; she just snapped off a piece of a toothpick, glued it on, and boom, that sheep was back in action on the velvet stage. It’s debatable whether the second sheep fared better. After an incident that involved the loss of two limbs, he just got the two remaining hooves (or whatever they are on sheep?) hot glued to a piece of brown cardboard for stability. Back to work, Muttonchop. 

Over the years, my mom accumulated several more Nativity Sets. By this time, I was an opinionated twenty-year old, and in my estimation, *this was too many nativity scenes.* Flash forward maybe a decade later, we were helping to move my parents out of their home. Our task involved trying to downsize their 40+ years of accumulated belongings by about 95%. It was a heart-wrenching process, but it was clear that almost everything had to go. 

Going through some boxes, I found the Nativity scene. I knew as soon as I came across it—this was not destined for the dumpster in the driveway. At this stage in our lives, my siblings already had accrued Nativity scenes of their own. But Rick and I had only been married for a few years, and we hadn’t. So there wasn’t any negotiation needed, the manger scene came to New Hampshire with us. 

I’m sure it won’t surprise you to know who now has a minimum of three nativity sets displayed at this time of the year. Because that’s how life goes. The moment you open your big bratty trap is the exact moment that thing becomes sealed in your destiny. We moan and groan about our parents’ idiosyncrasies as we “grow up” and grow out into the wide, wide world, and then one day turn around and promptly do the same things

This tattered old set is now one of my most prized possessions. I don’t know exactly how to describe the way I feel about it except to say that it’s the polar opposite of buyer’s remorse. When it’s early in December (or the day after Thanksgiving, who are we kidding?) and I go to unpack my Christmas decorations, I think to myself, I am so glad I was able to keep this set.  

One look at it and I am transported back to my childhood. My house growing up. The smells of Christmas. The bitter cold wind stinging my face. Being together as a family, with all or almost all of my older siblings under one roof. My parents—the dynamic duo, with Dad working tirelessly to finance Christmas and Mom, making it happen.  An ever-expanding crew of in-laws and babies. A fancy dinner out followed by the sleepy silence of a Midnight Mass. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I fared well in the presents department, too. (Just ask any one of my siblings…) But my parents also gave me (and all 6 of us) the best gift—the gift of faith. They weren’t opposed to “the things” of Christmas, but it was always clear that this holiday centered on the celebration of Jesus’ birth. I mean, it was laid out before us right there in the dining room. 

Now displayed in MY dining room (sans encyclopedias, green velvet, or three wisemen and camel which got lost in the shuffle somehow), the manger scene now hopefully provides the same kind of subtle lesson for Ryan. Together, he and I unwrap the pieces, and I lay eyes on the familiar faces of old friends: Mary, Joseph, the sweet little Baby Jesus, the angel, the shepherd, the cows, the donkey, and the ovine crew—of course, including the cardboard-mounted ewe and the toothpick-legged sheep. 

9 Comments

  1. What a beautiful story…. Beautiful memory!!
    I have such great memories of your family. What an amazing family you have.
    Merry Christmas 🎄 Hope you can enjoy being with everyone this Christmas.

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  2. What a beautiful tribute and story. I began collecting the pieces to my nativity in my 20s and it is without a doubt my favorite thing to set up. When I was a teacher LOL ,your teacher, I used to lift myself up all the time with music and often listened to What a Wonderful World … “I hear babies cry I watch them grow they’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know” and I believed that was the point that’s why I did what I did even if I was young a bit broke and most likely a bit idealistic. Fast forward to motherhood and I used same song to inspire me to do all that I could to make my children better and more educated. In the end (I’m not dying just getting old no worries) I have mellowed and realize there is so so much we teach them without really intending to and my faith my views on service and yes my little Nativity set do more than I could ever plan or intend. I thank you for your words of wisdom. I hope you and all your family Have a Blessed and Beautiful Christmas!

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    1. #1 – Thank you so much for taking the time to read it! #2 I recently was able to answer “Ziggurat” at a trivia night at a local bar/restaurant which has been stuck in my brain for 2 decades, and 100% came from you and your history class at MSD! Just a little example of the fact that, for sure, you have impacted your students (and children) – in big ways and small ways! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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  3. Katie, I read your story a short time go and then just now, again because although we were brought up in very different years, your story reminded me so much of what my upbringing was like with regard this religious tradition. It made me smile and I am so glad you shared this with us.

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    1. Mrs. McGrail!!!!! Thank you so much for reading. There are a lot of memories tied up in Christmases, that’s for sure. I hope you and the whole McGrail fam have a great Christmas and a happy and healthy 2023!

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  4. 💘Brought me right back. . Unrolling each tissue paper to see which figure was inside. Smart of Mom to make these things so accessible. I may have added some Hasbro Little People to the nativity scene for some pizzazz.
    Love this !!! Miss you !

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