A precious Christmas decoration contains quiet reminders of a gentler past

    Some Christmas decorations have more meaning than others. None of the stuff that I unpack from boxes each year means more to me than my crèche.

    This Nativity set, circa 1958, once belonged to my late grandparents and my still lively Aunt Anne. It kept a quiet presence while sitting in the center of merry Christmas celebrations at Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop Reilly’s rowhouse in West Philly during the 1950s and 1960s.

    A number of the crèche’s multi-colored figurines stand as tall as 10 inches. Because of their larger sizes, Anne and my grandparents arranged them on a bed of straw in their brick fireplace: Mary, Joseph, the multiracial kings and shepherds, a musician playing a horn, five sheep, an ox, a donkey, a camel and the Baby Jesus laying in His wooden manger.

    To my six-year-old eyes, the setting looked a lot like a stable.

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    The family center

    While this scene in the Reilly hearth served as a symbol of the Nativity, Christ’s birth and Christianity itself lay at the heart of the love that overflowed in my mother’s Irish-Catholic family.

    Everyone exchanged hugs and kisses as coats, snowsuits, hats and mittens were gathered and rushed upstairs to be stacked on a bed. Piles of prettily wrapped gifts surrounded the Christmas tree in the living room. But it wasn’t the presents that made these get-togethers so inviting. It was the people. The Reillys, their spouses and descendants have always cherished their time together. And most of the holiday fuss centered upon children.

    My cousins Suzanne and Rosemarie and I twirled around in our matching, bright-red velvet dresses for our aunts’ inspection and never-ending approval. Our younger brothers and sisters played happily together. Babies nestled on adults’ laps or napped on the second floor to the lullaby of whole-hearted laughter below. Anne captured many of these moments on her Kodak home movie camera. The four giant bulbs in the light bar, which shone on us during filming, were so bright we could not see straight after being photographed for posterity.

    After our vision returned to normal and sounds of ripping paper ended, there were more hugs and kisses as adults pulled on their overcoats, bundled babies into snowsuits, and slipped youngsters into their coats, hats and mittens during the customary long Reilly goodbye.

    Second act

    The Nativity scene sitting in the heart of this merriment moved into our house in 1988. My son was 7-months-old that Christmas. His sisters were 1 and 3. Because our fireplace was used for crackling fires, I placed the crèche up on a high, dark-wooded windowsill across from the stairway in the living room. For 22 years, I kept the tradition of laying straw in the Nativity scene so the setting might look like a stable to my children.

    Just as it did at my grandmother’s and grandfather’s home, the crèche kept a quiet presence during the hoopla of Hagan holiday gatherings and while Melanie, Amy and Mike raced down the stairs on Christmas mornings to see Santa’s handiwork around the Christmas tree.

    When we moved to a different home more recently, I put the Nativity scene on a high, cream-toned windowsill and replaced that messy straw with an ivory-colored, mutely sparkled, filmy material that diminishes the sight of chips that some of the statues have acquired over the past 25 years. More importantly, these decorative touches — the sheer fabric, white lights and a large golden star — create an otherworldly appearance that invites contemplation.

    In the midst of Yuletide hustle-bustle and stress, my eyes are drawn to that crèche. Then I recall Christmases past when a gentler culture — one that recognized God as the glue holding it together — unapologetically proclaimed “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of goodwill!” And I long for that world, if not in this life, then in the next.

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