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Shortly after finishing my university degree late in 1980, one of my lecturers who had a research budget told me there was some money left in the kitty for one more major trip that year. He had been particularly pleased with my results and asked if I wouldn’t like to spend a month in Eilat in southern Israel. I was to visit a research facility associated with ours as an observer. If I liked, I could also conduct some work of my choosing.
Delighted, I accepted. In the days before my departure, a small parcel arrived from ‘Omamma’, my German Grandmother. A note on the attached envelope stated simply “Nicht öffnen vor Heiligabend” – “Do not open until Christmas Eve”. I dutifully packed it in my suitcase and took off for Israel. Once there, I started up a small project, which linked to ongoing work back at the university.
Christmas arrived about a week into my trip. Lonely and missing my family terribly, I gladly accepted an invitation from a German couple to their flat on Christmas Eve.
As I assembled some small presents, I felt it in order to unwrap the package from my Grandmother. She had left a letter for me taped to the top of the rectangular, thin cardboard box. She wished me a very happy Christmas so far away in a foreign land. My Grandmother then went on to explain that the box contained a nativity scene that had accompanied my Grandfather Helmut in 1935 and ‘36 on two consecutive trips on the Kreuzer Karlsruhe, a German Navy Cruiser. I imagined him setting it up atop a table in his cabin, or perhaps in the officer’s mess bringing joy and memories of home to all who passed by.
Five years later, my great uncle Raban, an officer in the German Wehrmacht, found himself on a train heading for the Russian front late December. His sister, custodian of the nativity scene, had sent him off with the instructions not to open the box until Christmas Eve. When the time came, he set it up in his compartment. Uncle Raban was soon joined by more and more officers, eager to join in the Christmas spirit, sing carols, and be closer to home.
Another five years after that, it was my mother’s turn. Suffering from severe asthma she was sent to a children’s home in Wyk on the North Sea island of Föhr. That winter is known to this day on the island simply as “der Eiswinter”. In addition to the dire prospects of the post-war time, there were major supply problems; Föhr was cut off for weeks. People tried to cross the massive ice build-up covering the Wadden Sea on foot and using trucks to bring urgently needed goods from the mainland. One truck trying to reach the stricken island broke through the ice and was lost.
Conditions in the hostel were dire. With little or no heat, the children were confined to their beds. Despite this, the doctor refused to let my mother, a young girl of thirteen, return home for Christmas. Once again the nativity scene worked its magic. Children and staff huddled around it in the bitter cold. Their thoughts went home to their loved ones and it was Christmas.
After a long pause of 34 years, it was now my turn. I packed up the as yet unopened parcel from my Grandmother along with my small gifts and made my way to the Christmas gathering. My friends had decorated up a large succulent plant as their Christmas tree. All told there were about ten of us, four of whom were fellow Christians. Each of us brought along our need for company, some food, drink, as well as small gifts for the others.
Assembling the nativity scene brought tears of joy to everyone’s eyes. It’s a simple affair, cut out of thin plywood and painted. The stand has holes drilled into it for Mary and Joseph, a few pine trees, a deer, and a rabbit. There is also a hole to attach a shooting star that stretches out over to Mary, who is holding little baby Jesus. The scene is backed by an arch of blue tissue paper illuminated from behind by a single candle.
With a power that is perhaps hard to grasp if not witnessed first-hand, this nativity scene connected each of us with home and family. A glow spread out through the room. Over dinner we exchanged our gifts and sang joyful carols until late in the night. Simple as the evening was and so far from home, it was perhaps one of the most sentimental any one of us will remember.
I carefully repacked the precious nativity scene using the same tissue paper I am certain my grandfather and great uncle had also held in their hands. When I later returned home I sent it back to Omamma, adding a note about my Christmas experience to the letter she had enclosed for me, thus adding a new facet to the tradition.
But that was not, nor will it hopefully ever be the last of its travels. In 1991 we all travelled from Ireland to New Mexico to celebrate Christmas with my sister and her family there. Through the nativity scene, home came with us.
Four years later, it accompanied me once again, as I joined my fiancé Daria and her family in Philadelphia. This started off a difficult Christmas. Daria’s father had died earlier that year, we just had a tragedy the week before, and Daria’s sister had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Irena, Daria’s mother, just stared silently at the nativity scene as I set it up near her tree. A single tear trickled down her cheek. When Daria’s sister and the rest of the family arrived, I lit the candle. The blue tissue paper arch glowed once again like the evening sky. The magic was released and the faces surrounding me all lit up. This was my new family and the nativity scene had brought the joy of Christmas to all our hearts.
Ten years ago we flew from America where we were living to stay in a house we had just built across an inlet from my family home in Mayo. The nativity scene joined us there after what was certainly its shortest trip ever. When we lit the candle that Christmas Eve, we received a gift we had not expected. Our as yet unfinished house became the new home we cherish to this very day.
It’s most recent trip was perhaps reminiscent of its first when it accompanied my grandfather out to sea. My wife and I set out across the Atlantic in our sailboat to explore distant lands. Christmas Eve found us at anchor off Bridgetown in Barbados. We had lost contact with close friends of ours, crossing the ocean some distance behind us. We were fraught with worry. Nevertheless, we set up our small Christmas tree replete with electric lights on the aft deck of our boat and carefully put together the delicate little nativity scene down below in our salon.
Late that evening we heard a splash and a rattle of chain. Our friends dropped anchor a short distance away. They quickly rowed over in their dinghy to join us and tell their story. Several days earlier they had run out of fuel, and subsequently ran out of electric power as well. They arrived in Barbados totally exhausted and in deep despair after having hand steered for days. The lights from our tree guided them into the harbour. When we brought them below and lit the candle behind the blue tissue paper, it lifted their spirits. Their eyes filled with tears of joy, as did ours. We were all home, it was Christmas, and another story was added to the growing collection.
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