I never met my wife’s Aunt Pat, who died long before I entered the family. But I connect with Pat each Christmas when we unpack her crèche and place it under the tree. My wife inherited the nativity scene from Pat, which makes it an heirloom, I suppose, although nothing so grand as what you’d see on “Antiques Roadshow.”
The plaster figures look gnawed at the edges — evidence, we guess, of some long-ago season when mice chewed them while they were stored in an attic.
A lot of the paint has fallen away over the years, revealing white plaster underneath. Mary’s blue robe and Joseph’s brown coat look freckled with snow. The baby Jesus is nicked in places, his poor little body foreshadowing, in a poignant way, the torments of Good Friday that await him in manhood.
I’ve become so accustomed to timeworn crèches that I wouldn’t know what to do if some perfect new one entered my household. The nativity scene of my childhood had a three-legged lamb, along with a wise man who sported a crack along his neck. He’d lost his head one Christmas when he fell from the coffee table, the decapitation awkwardly repaired with Elmer’s glue.
Unplugging the lights from this year’s tree requires me to kneel each evening by Pat’s old crèche, and sometimes I stay down there a while, inviting myself within the company of the Christ child.
I like that our crèche is a little broken, since I’m a little broken, too, in the way that all of us are a little broken. Each Christmas reminds me that another year has passed since I made all those New Year’s resolutions to create a new, improved me — and that I am mostly the same, flawed man who hauled last year’s tinsel and ornaments from the shed.
This was the year I was supposed to lose 20 pounds, but gained 10. I had wanted to write something grand and profound, but instead spent my time on the modest scribblings you see here. There were big plans for a home makeover, too. The best that I can say is that I repainted the bathroom, then watched an old episode of “Columbo.”
But if I didn’t exactly earn a spot at the crèche this year, I also know that no one ever really does. We’re given a place at Christmas because the holiday is about unconditional love — the idea that humanity, with all its quirks and cracks and dark places, is worth redemption. It’s a message that resonates across all faiths, and even among those with no faith at all.
If there’s room for me at the manger, I assume that there’s also room for others — for the difficult co-worker, the thorny relative, the hapless drivers who peeve me in holiday traffic.
I’ll make new resolutions next month, comforted by the thought that regardless of how things turn out, there will be room for me at the manger next Christmas, too — just as there’s room for you.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.