My niece wanted to play with two sets of wooden Christmas houses and dolls. She told me that we had to play with these “very carefully,” but I wasn’t too worried, because all the parts were appropriately sized and sufficiently sturdy for pre-school hands. One house-doll set was Santa’s workshop, complete with Santa Claus, Mrs. Santa Claus, a toy train, and a single runner from what had once been a more complete sleigh. The other house-doll set was a nativity scene, including Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, a sheep, a donkey, a camel and a female-looking figure that had wings and was perched on the top of the roof. My niece called her “the fairy.” I lack my niece’s lively imagination, so I suggested we name the fairy “Angelica.” My niece agreed to call her “Angel,” but that didn’t change anything — she was still a fairy. A silver-colored turtle, who was bigger than the camel, was also in the stable.
As the doors of stable and workshop opened, three things happened immediately. The wooden train moved from Santa’s workshop to the stable — every little boy needs a train, right? Mary hugged the turtle; then the turtle fell on its back and lay outside the stable (we were done with him). The fairy fell off her perch, and we put her back on the roof. The fairy fell repeatedly, but we always took care of her. My niece loves fairies. She also loves princesses, and once when we knocked on the stable door, a princess opened it for us, or so I was told.
My niece and I played for about an hour with Jesus, Mary, Santa Claus and Mrs. Santa Claus, the sleigh, the animals and of course the fairy. Poor old Joseph was left lying on his side in the stable; after we’d broken his arm off and put it back on, we didn’t want to take any more chances, so we left him alone. In the end, the fairy got much more attention than Joseph.
So did Mrs. Santa Claus. She was busy. She was in the workshop with Santa, helping out with the toy-making, and she also spent a lot of time next door in the stable. I asked if she was babysitting the Baby Jesus, but my niece said, “No, she’s just here.” She then handed me Santa, pointed to the workshop, and said, “You play with him.”
Doors kept opening and closing. The fairy fell off and remounted the roof several times. Santa got kind of lonely, so he came over to the stable with some toys. “Ho, ho, ho,” he said, and gave Mrs. Santa Claus a kiss. She responded with many kisses — Santa and his wife had a very enthusiastic reunion — and my niece told me that before they go to bed at night Santa Claus and Mrs. Santa Claus like to play games. But this was daytime; soon Santa was sent back to his workshop: “You play with him.”
Santa Claus was good for more than toy-making, however. In a few minutes, the Baby Jesus disappeared! He had been taken to the other side of the room and was being held behind a table lamp! Someone needed to rescue him! Quick! Put Santa on his sleigh and fly to rescue the baby Jesus! I did as directed, and then Santa picked up the little baby, put him into his one-runner sleigh, and flew the infant back to the safety of his manger. Whew! The baby was safe again. Mrs. Santa Claus and Mary watched him sleep.
Baby Jesus was not at all like the Christmas carols said he would be. He cried a lot, but finally Mary got him calmed down.
Meanwhile, the sheep scampered outside the stable. Because I had visited Scotland and Wales last summer and had observed a lot of sheep, I made appropriate noises: “Baaaaaaaa, baaaaaaa, baaaaaaa.” I was sure I was doing a great sheep sound.
My niece looked at me. “The sheep is throwing up,” she said.
“No,” I said, “he’s just ‘baa-ing.’”
“He’s throwing up,” she said, and then tipped him over on the grass. “Blech, blech,” she said. He threw up a lot on the grass, and then he ran into the stable, where he continued to barf in the corner of the room. I’m happy to report that Jesus was on the other end of the stable.
As the sheep ran around, being sick, he knocked over the camel. “He’s dead,” my niece pronounced.
“He’s not asleep?” I pleaded.
“No, he’s dead.” She said, very matter-of-factly. Fortunately the horse (donkey) was alive and well, prancing around. The fairy fell down, went back up.
I did not know that things were so lively back there in Bethlehem. I thought that everything was “calm and bright,” the animals alive and healthy, Baby Jesus always quiet, and on the receiving end of gold, frankincense and myrrh instead of a toy train. I’m glad I was wrong on that last part —what baby wants frankincense when he could have a toy train? I think my niece’s version of events is way more fun than the original probably was. We had a good time together.
DEBORAH KAPP is the Edward F. and Phyllis K. Campbell Professor of Urban Ministry, McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.