The beauty of stained glassClick thumbnail to view full-size
Growing up in the sixties as a Catholic meant that you didn’t question what the meaning of Christmas was you just learned and accepted it. In our family we would often attend the midnight mass. I loved going at that time, even though I was sleepy, because it made me feel like we were on the cusp of Christ’s birth. The church would be bright with candles and the stained glass windows would glow. The crèche stood outside in the front of the church with life sized figures.
Every Catholic knows the story of how Christ was born in a stable because there was ‘no room at the inn’. Who doesn’t know, through songs and religious teachings, how a lowly manger became his crib. And, what goes in a manger? Well, hay or straw, of course. So, here is a story of what happened to a little girl when she was assigned the task of making a manger for her catechism class.
I was 7 years old and in first grade. Since I attended a public school I had to go to catechism following church each Sunday. Catechism is the equivalent of Sunday school or Bible Study where we learn all about God, according to the Catholic beliefs.
One of the traditions in many Catholic homes, ours included, was to fill the nativity manger with straw by doing a good deed for someone or helping out around the house in the month before Christmas. Each time a child participated in this way she got to place a piece of straw that was provided into the manger. The idea was to do so many good deeds that Baby Jesus would have a nice, soft bed to lay in when he came into the world.
Our Catechism class was having a competition that year and each student was invited to create his own manger out of whatever materials he chose. He could have help from parents, and it could be any design or material, but the entries would have to be in before the deadline.
Determined to win the prize, I set off to design my version of what a manger would look like with one fatal flaw-I was not artistically inclined and had no clue, at seven years old, how necessary this was at some level. It didn’t take long before my father found me with my head on the kitchen table sobbing as if my heart would break.
The Finished Project
Now, if any of you have read my other hubs regarding family, and in particular the hub, The Sacrifices of Fathers, you already know the kind of father he was. So, he gave me a consoling hug, brought me into the basement to his work bench, and began to pick out several pieces of plain wood, cutting them into five pieces of varying sizes. Next, he grabbed a hammer and tiny nails and soon I followed him back to the kitchen where he laid everything out.
The manger assignment then turned into a geometry lesson when my dad asked me to choose the matching pieces. I pulled the two largest and two medium sized pieces together side by side and left the smallest piece by itself.
He then assisted me in nailing the pieces together, which really amounted to me placing my small hand atop his big one, as he gently tapped the nails into the wood. Deftly, he worked those large pieces around the smallest one and soon a manger no bigger than a small index card box emerged.
“There you go, Denise,” dad said satisfied. “You made a manger.”
I sat staring at the pieces of plain, solid wood that did not look at all what I had envisioned in my young head, not understanding my father’s perspective, and immediately began to cry.
I’m sure I said something childish and unappreciative like, “That’s not going to win a prize. That’s ugly.” And, I sobbed even harder than before.
Well, if there was one thing my father could not stand for very long it was tears. He couldn’t stand any of us crying about something that he couldn’t fix or do anything about. An argument ensued and when I insisted I wasn’t going to take that ‘thing’ to represent my manger to class, he insisted I would, and by golly he overruled me.
The next day I begrudgingly brought the entry into class where several teachers from the other grades would judge them during our catechism lesson. I wasn’t devious enough to defy my father by tossing it into the garbage can, as my brothers might have…I was destined to obey or face the wrath of my father.
What a lesson in humility it was for me; a lesson that stuck with me throughout my life. When I arrived home that afternoon my father inquired about class and I stood before him holding out my manger that he had lovingly helped build. There it was as small and plain as ever with a blue ribbon attached to its side.
This unadorned manger, certainly the better representation of what Jesus had for a crib, had beat out all of the larger, fancier mangers that the other children had made and I was glowing- unaware, as of yet, of my father’s strength and wisdom.
The lesson he taught that day was one of simplicity. A lesson that I understood and appreciated the older I grew. Needless to say, the lesson, as well as the manager, remains with me to this day. And, just as I did that Christmas season, I taught my own children to fill the manger with the ‘good deed’ straw.