children • education • parents
relationships • marriage • the elderly


One Christmas Memory

December 21, 2018 by

During my childhood, Christmas was the crowning jewel of the year. The holidays seemed to start with my sister Esther’s birthday around the first weekend of Advent, which heralded the beginning of the most wonderful days.

It was an enshrined tradition that on the Friday evening before the first Sunday of Advent, we would bind evergreen wreaths: this always included creating a wreath for the barn door, and later, one for Esther’s grave, and later still, one each for Grandma and then Grandpa. 

The next day, Saturday, our family hiked together into the nearby woods to collect moss, rocks, sand, and unique bits of wood for our nativity scene. We dedicated the whole afternoon to setting up the scene, which occupied an entire corner of our living room, beneath the Christmas tree. Every year the nativity arrangement was different from the year before, but it was always perfect. As we grew older, we children were allowed more and more say in how it looked. I always favored wooded areas for the kings, while another sister promoted mossy hills for sheep. My brother introduced desert concepts, and the youngest took charge of the little gravel path leading up to the stable.

On the first Advent Sunday, the nativity landscape would be prepared, but without a single figure present. The Christmas tree likewise would take pride of place, but with nothing on it except elegant white lights. Everything looked beautiful, and waiting: the empty manger, the empty road, the empty hills, the simple tree.

But every day of the Advent season, one of us children would open a special box to find a wooden figure, which we put into position, finding its place in our dramatizations of the Christmas story. 

Our grandfather Arnold Mason carved all the figures from soft, scented pine, and he took an active interest in what figures we wanted and how they should be represented. His wife, our Grandma Gladys, painted a tiny cardinal red, one of the three kittens black, and dipped certain of the sheep in glue and wood shavings to give them texture. There was a Walking Mary and a Waiting Mary, and finally, when Christmas had almost arrived, a Kneeling Mary. There were three kings and very complicated, realistic-looking camels in a variety of poses; twenty sheep in all phases of development; calm and frightened shepherds; even mice with tiny threaded tails. Due to the damp moss, our constant rearranging of the pieces, and the general aging of the wood, bringing various broken figures to Grandpa Arnold for mending was an inevitable part of the Christmas season.

But the figure that most captured our interest and was the object of direct derision was the innkeeper. Grandpa Arnold fashioned him in an angry stance, legs firm, hands permanently out in a gesture that commanded retreat and brooked no argument.

scissor cut of the Christmas story

Grandpa built the innkeeper an inn, at our insistence, which looked palatial in comparison to the rough-hewn stable – it had electricity, for goodness’ sake. The inn’s orangey light bulb glowed through a door that swung on real hinges. The door and windows arched, and the flat roof came off. We were thrilled with that addition, and told Grandpa.

During our epic reenactments of the Christmas story, while the grown-ups held long and boring conversations at the dinner table, the innkeeper would finally feel the full brunt of our anger at him having turned away Mary and Joseph; he would get stuffed inside the inn, the lid-roof slammed down, and his electricity turned off.

“Easy does it, Nora,” my father gently chided once when the innkeeper’s arm was broken off in the scuffle and we rushed to Grandpa for help with glue. “We all have a little of the innkeeper in us.”

Decorating the tree was left until Christmas Eve afternoon. While we scurried around bringing homemade cookies to our favorite teachers, and delivered all of Mum’s Christmas breads to various aunts and uncles, the tree would be surrounded by lots of little boxes of wonder and become something new; red apples, straw stars, tiny ceramic angels from our German grandmother’s hometown in Germany, and real white candles.

Later that evening, when our parents opened the living room door and invited us in to open our gifts, the tree would be in its full and lighted glory, the Baby would be in the manger where He belonged, and resting in our brimmed-up children’s hearts as well.

It’s been many years since I left home, but always during these weeks before Christmas these memories come to mind in childhood clarity; a whiff of fragrance or one stanza of song will put me back in that time, that home, that radiance of love.

We’re all looking for the path to the manger, despite our splinters and brokenness and wounds.

I often think about the characters we placed in our nativity scene, one by one, over the weeks, and how each year there would be something new to add, as well as more mended limbs, a limp or two in the shepherds, a camel missing a hump. I think back to my dad’s words about the innkeeper, and know I have recognized him in me more often than I care to admit.

I realize that every single day of the year, the timeless drama we used to reenact in miniature under our Christmas tree is being played out in the lives of people everywhere: we’re all looking for the path to the manger, despite splinters and brokenness and wounds galore. We each know at least in part what it is to be that Walking Mary or Waiting Mary, holding to the promise of a Child we do not as yet see – wishing in our deepest hearts we could truly be the Kneeling Mary, gazing into the face of Love.

For the time being – this time of Advent expectation – I take comfort in the crunch of gravel beneath my feet. It reassures me I’m still on the path, moving forward, to welcome an infant King who chose a manger for his Throne.

Follow Norann on Twitter at @NorannV.


About the author

Norann Voll portrait

Norann Voll

Norann Voll lived in New York’s Hudson Valley until moving to the Danthonia Bruderhof in New South Wales, Australia in 2002...

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  • What a lovely description of your childhood Christmas! Personally, I feel sorry for the innkeeper. After all, it wasn't his fault if the inn was full (and presumably Joseph had forgotten to telephone ahead! (Sic). But at least he found a little place for the Holy Family. I wonder whether I would do the same... A very happy new year to you, your lovely family and all our new friends in Danthonia. Tom & Clare.

    Tom Kennar
  • Thank you so much, Heather! It has been wonderful to share so much of this Christmas with you and your family. Blessings on each one of you for the new year! Norann

    Norann Voll
  • Norann, I loved your memories of your childhood Christmas. A very beautiful tradition for your family. I also valued the way you applied it to our present day journey. Yes indeed! All broken but on the journey! Thankyou. Your thoughts touched my heart as always. Love, Heather

    Heather Kerridge