During the Christmas season, there was lots of hustle and bustle at the creaky old house on Goodwin Avenue. All of us loved the season, but my very religious grandparents loved it most of all. For us kids, it meant presents; good food; a break from school; getting to live at that house for the whole school break and the excitement of the nacimiento.
Putting out the nacimiento (nativity scene) is pretty standard in Latino Catholic households. My grandparents really did it up. Every year, my Papa Chava would prepare for it. He had built a manger with branches from the trees outside and as it made its way up from the basement, he would check it carefully for loose nails, splintering or boughs that needed replacing. He’d take it into his workshop in el garaje (the garage) to make any needed repairs. Once it was fixed, he’d bring it and and set it down lovingly on the table that had been just as lovingly draped in a beautiful cloth by either my Auntie Jessie or my grandmother. Once the hand-crafted manger was set up, my Papa would go back outside and get up on his ladder. He’d cut down boughs of sweet smelling pine and use them to cover the top of the manger’s roof. The Baby Jesus needed a strong roof after all.
I often had the honor of going down to the basement with my Auntie Jessie and digging through all the goodies there to find the boxes of carefully packed nativity figurines. Some of these were incredibly beautiful. The Baby Jesus was life size and gorgeous. He was made in Italy sometime in the 1940’s and his glass eyes and little teeth were so very realistic. I loved that figurine. Mary and Joseph were equally beautiful and the Reyes Magos (Three Kings) were stunningly attired and regal. The hand-painted detail of these figurines was stunning. They all looked as if they had walked right out of a painting by Da Vinci or Carraveggio.
The animals too, were realistic and beautifully painted. Cows, donkey, camels, the elephant one of the Tres Magos rode in on all were placed carefully within and around the manger. A star was placed on top to replicate the Star of Bethlehem and my grandfather had rigged it so that it lit up when we turned it on at night. Everything waited in the manger for the Christ Child to be born, even the little cradle with it’s handmade, incredibly soft blankets made by my Aunt Jessie and Grandmother.
Some years, Auntie Jessie would make the Baby Jesus a new gown of baby blue satin, edge in gold lace or trim. He was a kingly child after all.
The anticipation grew each day as we watched the tree filling up with presents and the nacimiento still empty. Finally, the night of Noche Buena (the good night) would come and off we would go to midnight mass at the little parish church, Cristo Rey on Perlita Street. At communion, wine would be given with the host and we kids would feel VERY important and grown up with that sip of wine to wash away the wafer thin host.
The short walk home was exciting too, if cold but we were well bundled up by my Grandma Lupe so it wasn’t ever too bad. When we got home, hot champurrado would be waiting on the stove and the Baby Jesus would be “born”; placed in his cradle by either of my grandparents. We would line up to greet him, each of placing a gentle kiss on his forehead to welcome him to the world.
I don’t know what happened to my grandparent’s nativity scene, since lots of things disappeared after they died, so I don’t have pictures of it. There is a Baby Jesus almost like it here http://nicholasandsteele.blogspot.com/2010/10/this-n-that.html but our Baby Jesus was laughing and you could see his little teeth. He was a much happier baby.