In 1958, public displays of commercial religious art were the accepted norm and were not questioned. A major expression of this public-parochial partnership was the manger scene, and they were everywhere. Anywhere there was enough space to put it and enough people to look at it. All it took was someone willing to put it up, take it down and store it in his or her garage for the next eleven months.
Manger scenes came in all sizes and shapes. You could even get plastic appliqués that resembled stained glass, which clung to the inside of a window so that the interior light illuminated it when viewed from the street.
There were also small tabletop knock-offs, which were imported from what we called the “J. A. Pan Company,” with painted 2-to 3-inch-tall hollow plastic figures that all looked Asian. These were truly seasonal art. You would be lucky if it lasted through the holiday season before if fell apart.
You could also find the basic, no-frills economy-model manger scenes, which were very popular and very affordable.
However, many were bigger and more elaborate. They had real statues, bright colors and a full cast of characters, including an ox and a cow. Some even had real hay glued to the floor. These editions were upgraded from just being called a “manger scene” to being called a “Nativity scene.”
However, even the best of these paled in comparison to the full-sized production that was across the street from my house on the convent lawn. It had floodlights, a sound system, stage props, animated parts, a separate 300-amp service panel and a Star of Bethlehem the size of an aircraft beacon. All the VIP characters, from Mary down to the lowliest shepherd, were re-created as life-sized, painted plywood cutouts. This was no mere manger scene; this merited the title of a Crèche.
There was a fore shortened painted plywood cow that looked straight out at you. There was a donkey, a couple of sheep, doves, ducks, birds, bunnies, an ox, two goats and a camel out back tethered to a plywood palm tree. It looked like Noah’s Ark ran aground and spilled its contents.
The Magi were there, too. Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchior stood with smartly wrapped gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Traditionally, they do not arrive until the Epiphany on Jan. 6, but because this is art, a little chronological fudging is permissible.
A revolving color wheel on one of the floodlights changed the aura from red to blue to green hues. Standing in front of that made you proud to be a parishioner because you knew that, even though no one was keeping score, it was a lot bigger and better than any of that lame Protestant stuff a couple of blocks away. No offense.
This divinely inspired, life-sized enactment was the product of months of praying, planning, endless bickering and dedication of the workers of the parish. Those sweaty shouting matches out in Dirty Ernie’s garage last August were all forgotten now. In case you’re wondering, Ernie was a faithful parishioner; however, he could never seem to complete a single sentence without cursing or swearing.
I would look out my window through the plastic manger appliqué at the cars slowly driving by with the backseat windows rolled down to give the kids clear view. Some of the cars had people we never really saw in church at Mass on Sunday. These people were obviously just Pagans trying to suck up some the free divine favor emanating from the scene.
People got out of their cars with cameras, and took dozens of flash pictures from every angle imaginable. Some boldly dared to enter the hallowed grounds of the crèche to pose him or herself next to Joseph like a volunteer proudly getting his picture taken with the president.
Around the end of the third week of December, the drive-by traffic tapered off. All who cared to see it had done so. The crèche, as it turned, now became a shooting gallery for ice chunks and snowballs for my friends and I. We found out that if you landed an ice chunk about a third of the way down the body, and threw hard enough, the cutouts would topple over as if they had been plugged in a John Wayne movie. The trick was to knock down a whole row. The day after the shooting match, I used to see the church maintenance man, affectionately known as “Bill the Bellringer,” out there propping all the figures back up, knowing full well that he’d be out there again the next day doing the same thing.
On Christmas Eve 1958, it was a Wednesday, the crèche suffered its first fatality. Some kid nailed the only kneeling shepherd just to the left of the manger and knocked his head clean off with a massive ice chunk with a lot of road dirt in it. We knew we wouldn’t be blamed and it would be seen as the mindless, violent act of some sore head Protestant from the church a couple blocks away with the crummy manger scene. Besides, we were not responsible because it was obvious the shepherd was built all wrong. If it had been built with the wood grain, going vertical rather than horizontal it would not have snapped so cleanly at the neck. Clearly, this was just a defect in workmanship and material as far as we were concerned. Maybe that was what that argument in the garage was all about last August.
We realized that an opportunity had presented itself and work began to fill the void left by the fractured shepherd. It was kind of a warm day and the snow was sticky and just right for snowballs, which also meant it was just right to build a snowman, too.
At dusk the plan commenced for replacement for the kneeling shepherd. We deemed ourselves as worthy crèche builders who just happened to work in a different medium: Snow.
It took about a half an hour to construct Frosty. We got him some dirt chunk eyes, a scarf, mittens and a hat from the “Lost and Found” box in the back of the church. We also got him glasses, some boots, a handbag and an umbrella. When those automatic flood lamps came up at 7 p.m. and the big color wheel light kicked-in, it was a remarkable sight for all those attending the Christmas Eve vigil to behold.
There, surrounding the slumbering infant in the manger stood Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men and, Frosty. St. Frosty as we now refer to him. Although Frosty’s sainthood has been pending for a number of years now, we still like to think he has a shot at it in this new ecumenical world. So the next time you see a manger scene, a nativity scene or a full-blown crèche, just crack a smile and hum a little “Frosty The Snowman” under your breath like I do.