After decorating our Christmas tree and putting up the stockings and lights, my daughter Brontë and I opened a special box together.
I watched my three-year-old daughter’s eyes widen as we pulled out, piece by piece, my treasured crèche set.
When I was about eight years old, my mother bought a bunch of Santon figurines while we were vacationing in Provence.
Santons (or “little saints”) are charming little painted terra-cotta figurines made for a traditional Provençal crèche, or nativity scene. They were first created during the French Revolution, when churches were forcibly shut down, eventually becoming a local craft.
I used to love them as a child, having appointed myself the Lead Director of Manger Positioning every year when our family decorated for Christmas. I would thoughtfully place each character, stepping back many times to assess the overall effect then adjusting the scene until it met my strict creative standards.
The manger I used for the sacred representation is far too big for the figurines. Originally part of a different set, the wooden structure was, to my childhood brain, its only salvageable element.
What was wrong with it? Well, these would-be usurpers failed both parts of my little girl nativity scene assessment test: 1. Mary was blonde, and 2. All three kings were white.
I chuckle when looking back on it now, but when I was a little girl, it was extremely important to me that Mary had dark hair. Blonde Mary seemed patently ridiculous, a blatantly-racist rewriting of historical fact.
My theories make some sense, though, given that this all was supposed to take place in the Middle East.
In Sweden or Norway, blondes might be legitimate. But in the Middle East? Natural blondness occurs so rarely there that making Mary blonde seemed to imply that holiness and goodness somehow results in lighter hair, despite its genetic unlikeliness.
And the black king… well again, this is the Middle East. If there are three kings (or “wise men”) randomly arriving from foreign parts to see the baby, I felt at least one of them should be black.
The French Santon set, with its black king and brunette Mary, was therefore the “true” set of my childhood imagination, the only one deserving of any manger. So years ago, I added the wooden structure to the French cast while quietly tucking the rest of the usurping Aryans away. I don’t know what happened to them.
Looking back on it now, however, the bizarrely-anachronistic Santons could hardly be considered “authentic.”
First, it includes a Catholic priest holding an umbrella.
Now, I’m not sure how he got past the editors, but clearly, there was no such thing as Christianity at the moment of Jesus’s birth, let alone Catholicism. It would actually be more accurate to include Pharaohs and Pharisees, given that everyone present would have been Jewish, Roman, or Egyptian at the time.
I won’t bother getting into the umbrella issue. Or the duck (there’s also a duck).
Beyond the inclusion of Catholic priests, there is also an odd mixture of costuming. While Mary and Joseph look properly biblical, many of the villagers coming to see the baby are clearly dressed in 18th century French attire. The Drummer Boy has a coat with several rows of Enlightenment buttons.
Hmm… I hate to ruin everything by pondering its lack of historical accuracy, so I’ll chalk it up to the universality of the tale: the scene becomes a collection of symbols and archetypes that have captured our imagination for centuries. It can work in different periods, like when people put on a Shakespeare play where everyone is dressed for the 19th century or in modern clothes, because the story is timeless.
None of this bothers my three-year-old, of course, who has other concerns. Watching your children reinterpret relics of your own childhood can be fascinating.
It all went down like this.
Brontë (holding up a crèche figurine with arms held in the air): AAAAH!
Me (trying to explain the presence of an 18th century French peasant woman on December 25, zero): She’s surprised. She’s a shocked villager, amazed to see the baby.
Brontë (feigning fear): No, it’s a monster! RAWR! [She picks up the black king] Who is this?
Me: That’s one of three kings. Here to see the baby.
Brontë (suspiciously): Where’s the queen?
Me: There is no queen. Except Mary… in the spiritual sense.
Brontë (grabbing a wise man with a gray beard): THIS is the queen now.
Me: Alright, why not?
Brontë (grabbing Mary): And this is the queen’s best friend. They like chickens.
The world through three-year-old eyes is a trip.
Part of me was reluctant to let her play with the figurines, in case she breaks them. Breaking the baby Jesus just can’t be a good omen for anyone. Like sneezing in holy water or stomping across graves.
On the other hand, Brontë is being very gentle with them and seems utterly fascinated by moving them around. Every day, she has been creating new vignettes, and I hate to discourage the creativity.
In this one, she carefully positioned all the animals around the baby. She likes animals a lot, so I assume they are helping guard the baby while keeping it warm.
I also imagine the idea resonates with her, since she spent much of her infancy like this:
The next day, Brontë lined up all of the adults next to the infant messiah. I’m guessing that since she kept hearing about everyone coming to see the baby, she figured she would play it out with a receiving line.
With the nativity scene rapidly becoming Brontë’s Box of Archetypes, I’m curious to see what she will come up with next…