The following is an account of my mother’s favorite Christmas tradition: putting up the presepio with her father. It is written from her point of view.
Walking into the house, the smell of coffee was strong in the air. It was mid-afternoon, and breakfast was long past. The kitchen, usually bustling with activity, was silent. Ancient-looking boxes were piled down the hallway towards the living room. Discolored with age, covered in notes and scribbles from people long since gone, these boxes were an annual part of our Christmas traditions. They had been lovingly cared for by generations of our family, pulled out and rediscovered each year in celebration of the Christ child’s birth.
Papa, being the eldest son, was in charge of the presepio. There was an order to put it together, an invisible rulebook that only he knew, and that we all were bound by. The furniture in the living room had to be moved and placed in a certain way in order to maximize the most space. The presepio was always in the corner by the piano. Mama’s fake Ficus tree, heavily ladened with lights, was nestled in the corner, destined to be the mountainous backdrop for the starry town of Bethlehem. Crisp white sheets and cotton fluff were lovingly molded into hills and valleys, while shepherds with their flocks of sheep were spread along the hill tops.
The houses in our Bethlehem were made out of a heavy paper and looked as though they had come out of the pages of time. They glowed iridescent under the lights with their many colors. Far from the monochromatic look of the true Middle East, we never questioned the colorful roofs, porches, and stained-glass windows. They stood on their white covered land, dreamy and in shadows.
Slowly, the residents of the town began to emerge. The kerchief lady feeding her chickens lived in the small house with the blue roof. The older gentleman and his dog coming home from their walk in the mountains belonged to the white chalet. The castle with its red stained-glass windows always stood at the top of the town. No one ever came or left.
House after house, the town would begin to emerge like a small medieval village until, finally, the manger would be unpacked. Its placement was not in the center of the town, but off to the East. Nestled back in a quiet corner slept the animals of the manger. Horses, cows, and sheep all shared their home with Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. Huddled in the ancient straw that had been used year after year, the son of God looked lovingly towards the heavens while a golden guardian angel hung from the star overhead. Thin ribbons of gold had been wound around each of her wings and in the glistening of the lights, she truly seemed heaven-sent. Evergreen trees of all shapes and sizes were then placed around the city. Where would they need the shade? Which direction would the wind blow? Which house needed a garden? Finally, it was time for the coffee.
Spoonfuls of black coffee came down off the hills and spilled into the valley, forming trails. The dirt road wound itself amongst the houses and buildings. It weaved a path for the townspeople to follow during their daily lives, and flowed out of town right up to the manger. Miraculously, caravans full of camels and kings followed the fragrant road and bowed their heads in adoration.
When it was finished, a small brown plastic fence was laid around the edge of the entire village so that no interloper could trespass. With that, Papa and I would stand back and admire our work. All the lights in the room were turned off and the peaceful silence enshrouded us. Stories were told and information shared so that the following year, just like Brigadoon, our presepio would emerge, unchanged since the beginning of its time.