I was missing the most important part of Christmas.
Dust covered the top of the crates I dragged out of storage. They didn’t exactly scream holiday spirit.
It had been years since I’d opened Mom’s collection of Christmas decorations. Without her around to appreciate it, why decorate the house?
“Let’s see what’s inside!” my fiancée said.
The excitement in Stephanie’s eyes made the effort seem worth it. This year. Maybe.
I pulled open the first box and lifted out a three-foot-tall ceramic tree. Stephanie unwound the cord and plugged it in. Multicolored lights flickered to life. “Your mother sure knew how to celebrate,” Stephanie said.
That was an understatement. Christmas was Mom’s favorite time of year. She believed it was filled with promise and acted accordingly.
Each December our house became transformed. Mom wrapped garland around the banisters, stacked holiday dishes on the buffet and set out her hand-painted Santa’s workshop. The house reeked of Christmas.
After Mom died my family tried to celebrate Christmas the way we used to, but for me it just wasn’t the same. It was as if I had a big hole in my life where Mom used to be. A big hole where Christmas used to be.
Every year since I’d think about putting up the old decorations at my own place. Thinking was as far as I got. Then Stephanie and I got serious about a future, maybe starting a family of our own. I told her about the decorations in storage.
“Look!” Stephanie said, digging into another crate. “A little church—with real stained-glass windows.”
Mom liked to run her finger up the steeple, peering inside as if imagining a quaint Christmas service. Now maybe Stephanie would care for the little church the way Mom did.
I started on another crate and unwrapped the piece on top. At the first glimpse of blue I knew it was Mary, her expression as soft as I remembered.
Next I unwrapped a figure with an elaborate crown—the first of the three wise men. The next piece I identified before I even unwrapped it. Those two points could only be the ears of the donkey that carried Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.
Pieces lined up perfectly before me as the pile of tissue paper grew: the angel with her trumpet, the lowly shepherd with a lamb slung over his shoulders, simple Joseph in his brown robe. Only one more to go. I know what this one is, I thought as I peeled off the tissue paper to reveal…a lamb?
But where.... The box was empty. “Where’s baby Jesus?” I said, searching through the pile of tissue paper.
“He must be there. Did you check his manger?” Stephanie said.
I held up the cattle’s trough that served as his bed. “It’s empty. And Jesus is nowhere to be found. But he can’t be missing. He’s the most important part.”
Stephanie and I rummaged through all the wrapping paper scattered across the floor. “He was there for Mom’s last Christmas,” I said. “She never would have lost him.”
Hours later every box was empty and every bit of tissue paper laid out flat in a tall stack. Still no baby Jesus. Holding the empty manger in my hand, the aching feeling of loss washed over me again.
The most important part of Christmas was missing just as surely as the most important piece of Mom’s nativity set. I shouldn’t have hoped to make Christmas the way it used to be.
“We should just pack the nativity back into the crate,” I said.
“Not yet,” said Stephanie, putting her arm around me. “We’ve come this far. I’ll go to the hobby store tomorrow and find another baby tiny enough to fit.”
I couldn’t say no. At least the nativity set would be complete, even if my Christmas never would be.
The next night Stephanie showed up at my door empty-handed. “I couldn’t find a single baby to fit that manger,” she said. “I’m sorry.” She came inside and put the manger down between Mary and Joseph. We stood there staring at it. Empty, I thought. With nothing to fill it.
Stephanie reached out with her finger and pushed the little bed more securely between Mary and Joseph.
“You know, it really is a beautiful set,” she said. “I’m going to imagine the manger isn’t empty at all. I’m going to imagine it’s filled with new life. Our new life together as a family, and the new life Jesus promises us with his birth.”
I considered what she said. Wasn’t that the real reason Mom loved Christmas? Wasn’t that why she decorated and celebrated? This was the season of promise. The season of what might be.
Instead I’d been dwelling on what wasn’t. I had to stop looking back with sadness. Stephanie was right: It was time to look ahead with joy. “I think I know where the baby Jesus is,” I said.
Stephanie looked at me hopefully. “Where?”
“He’s with Mom up in heaven.”
One day I’d see them both. But for now Stephanie and I had a perfect nativity set to display at Christmas. We’ll celebrate our eighth together this year.
Our daughter will help us unpack Mom’s decorations—the ceramic tree, the little church, and the nativity scene with a manger that is full to the brim with memories. Memories and promise.
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