There’s a plot line in the Christmas movie classic “Love Actually,” when elementary schools in part of London have brought all their students together for one massive Christmas nativity production. Now, with so many children, there were only so many traditional roles to go around. So the fictional teachers found a solution.
In the movie one little girl excitedly tells her mother that she’ll be “the first lobster,” to which her mother replies incredulously, “There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?”
Anyone who’s ever put on a nativity play with more children than there are sheep and angel costumes in the church closet understands.
I had the movie playing in the background as I decorated my house this past weekend. And as I laid out the figurines in my own nativity scene, I realized I may not have lobsters, but I do have a pretty unique set all the same.
I have a dinosaur and a toucan.
You see, it all started when I was little. My mother had a very traditional, very sweet, collectable ceramic nativity scene. The kind that “one mustn’t touch.” But I loved looking at it all the same as it set atop my mother’s piano in our living room, out of reach.
I was probably 5 when I asked Mom why were the cows in the scene were Holsteins and not black Angus like ours in the pasture. She thought about it, and that day went out and got black craft paint and a toy cow figurine. From that moment we had Angus cows in our scene.
But then Mom got on a roll. Pretty soon, she replaced the broken angel of the matched set with a blond cherub sucking her thumb. (It may or may not have represented one of us kids who had a bit of a habit that she eventually kicked.) Next came a buffalo figurine because my dad loved buffalo. Then a little Native American boy holding a wrapped present from a trip out west, and a Santa kneeling at the manger were added. Every year we added something extra to the scene until it was wholly unique to our family.
I realized when I got older that my Mom could have kept her highly collectible nativity scene pure and un-besmirched by whimsy, but what message would that have sent us? That only perfection is acceptable to celebrate Jesus?
That sort of goes against the point He tried to make in his teachings, now doesn’t it? All are welcome as they are. Love everyone as yourselves. Treat the least of you with dignity and respect. Those aren’t just words on a page, but commands to follow.
And so, when I struck out on my own, my parents made sure I kept the tradition in my new home—a reminder to me not only of those lessons but also where I came from. They gifted me the starter nativity scene, but the rest came from every point life’s taken me.
So of course, there’s a black Angus cow. But I also have a red-hided cow and a buffalo from South Dakota, because I think the innkeeper probably got them on trade for a room.
Years ago after I broke one of the original three wise men, I replaced him with a farmer figurine I picked up in Cuba. I tell myself his little cigar box is filled with myrrh.
My shepherds are watching not only the ceramic sheep that came with the original set, but also a pig from Argentina and an alpaca from Peru. Mary and Joseph can choose from a donkey from Mexico or a Swedish horse from Lindsborg for their transportation needs, while an Amish buggy from Pennsylvania waits to the side in case they want to take the whole family for a spin through Bethlehem.
Standing guard over it all are a silver angel from New Mexico, a marble dragon from Vietnam, a toucan from Costa Rica, and a tiny dinosaur from a rock shop in Arizona. And, of course, at the feet of the manger are two schnauzer figurines. (I’d like to see King Herrod get past that alarm system.)
No lobsters, yet, but a trip to Maine is on my bucket list.
Some people may think it’s sacrilegious to add such diversity to a scene depicting Jesus Christ’s humble birth. But, what I see when I look at that scene, lit by the gentle glow of Christmas tree lights, are the faces of the people I met in those far away places.
There’s the Cuban farmer leaning on his hoe in the mid morning sunlight, smiling a small grin as I photographed him in his vegetable field. I remember the grandmother in the Vietnam market peddling rice and spices while her granddaughter practiced her English with me. I see the colorful tango dancers and the gutsy gauchos of Argentina, the inspiring cattlewoman of New Mexico, and the flamboyant rainforest guide of Costa Rica. Every little figurine reminds me of the many faces and places that make up this wide world. They remind me that no matter where I go, there are universal truths in any language, and those are: All are welcome; treat others with dignity and respect; and love everyone as you love yourselves.
There’s room in my nativity for not just Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, but for all of God’s creatures and people.