Nativity Scene

dec post 4“You don’t have to make every person in the city of Jerusalem,” my son says to me. He is home from college for the weekend and surveying the scene, incredulous that the stacks of fabric, scattered paper patterns, bags of pellets, stuffing, trim and buttons are ever going to amount to a proper Holy Family. I explain patiently. “It is Bethlehem, not Jerusalem, and there are a lot of characters in this story. I have already edited out the Innkeeper and his wife who are super important.” He says, “They are not what I would call ‘super important’.” I am indignant. “No Innkeeper’s wife, no manger. She orchestrated the whole setting” The row of cutout faces, lined up in various flesh tones alongside their corresponding future bodies, is particularly disconcerting to him. “Why does Jesus look like a thumb?” “Because that is how he is made, he is in swaddling clothes.” My son shivers. “He looks creepy.”

This is part of our holiday tradition. I attempt some seemingly impossible list of homemade gifts and my children and husband watch this ritual of aspirational overachievement with benevolent bemusement. Toys, quilts, scarves, all manner of stuffed and assembled things, most of which could be more easily and cheaply purchased, are in the works from November to the wee hours of Christmas morning. Skins and innards are strung everywhere as Mama Kringle assures everyone that this year she will get everything done on time and without incident. Retail jobs, small children, sickness, travel, nothing deters the hum of the machine or the smoke of the glue gun.

Last year I decided I wanted to make a Nativity out of bean bag dolls. I had bought the pattern years ago but had never done anything with it. I was trying to think of something special for my brother-in-law’s family and I pulled it out. It was the year to do it.

dec post 1As always, at first I dream big. Could this be an advent set, revealing a new character or creature every day of December? Could I build a wooden structure to put them in? Could all their clothes be the same color or texture? In the end, I go simple, just the main characters, with outfits that seem to fit their role or function. I ransack boxes of fabric scraps, every upholstery swatch I ever hoarded, I even find a tiny square of kimono fabric that will make my angel’s wings shimmer with glory. I wander around the house looking for inspiration. Leftover yarn for the donkey blanket, broken jewelry for a wise man, wire for the shepherd’s crook. I want a multicultural ensemble from many made-up ancient lands. I also want the Mary of my Catholic childhood, all gauzy and blue.

Each year the cycle is the same. I start out hopeful and excitedly rummaging through materials. Then each process is harder than I think it will be, and takes longer than I plan it to be, and never looks exactly how I imagined it would. Many things get eliminated or re-engineered. When I am discouraged and tired, I join my family in questioning. Why am I doing this? Just one year I could do what other moms do. I could make cookies, decorate the house before mid-December, give service to people in need, clean the bathroom. I could enjoy the holiday from the front room and not spinning in my self-imposed dungeon full of straw. Why not just go to Kohl’s like normal people?

The answer is not in the end result, which can be cute or occasionally closer to Ralphie’s bunny suit in the movie A Christmas Story (Yes, I am that aunt who makes things). I do it because in the doing, I am seeking. My mind wanders through metaphors during these late December nights. The alchemists who hypothesized that in distilling earthly substance, they would find the secret to an eternal spirit. The Shakers who believed that making something well was an “act of prayer” and worshiped in the simplicity of daily tasks. The pioneers who put their shoulder to the wheel and turned their desert into a garden. My strange gifts are hardly Shaker chairs, but there is purpose in the activity.

dec post 2As I sew, I tell myself three stories at the same time. The first is the story of the family that I am depicting. Something is happening. Only a few insiders knew about it. Two parents, a bunch of angels, random shepherds, a few kings. What would Joseph and Mary say to each other? I am fascinated by their relationship. Where were the kings from? How did they communicate if they came from all over? Everyone is trying hard to bring the right present. What do you bring the King of Kings? A lamb? A luxury item that both echoes Isaiah’s prophecies and is small enough to carry? A song on a drum? Generations have wondered what they would wrap up and set before the king. I remember a million scriptures, hymns, storybooks, movies.

Then there is the second story. I envision children playing with these dolls. The girls opening the little velcro hands, making the people walk and talk to welcome their guests. My niece would eagerly put that thumb-shaped baby Jesus in Mary’s arms. The twin toddler boys would hurdle sheep at each other across the room. I think of how much I love this second family with their quirky personalities and their generous acceptance. I think of how kind they are to our family and how much my boys adore them. I get teary as I reinforce each seam so they can play with wild abandon.

Then there is my story. As my hands move, my head and heart move in synchrony, crafting narrative, memory, hope of being together some day. This is my time to bask in Christmas. In building things, I am making time. I am constructing my own path to both of these beloved families far away, not with letters, emails or calls, but with this gift. They are sitting next to me and in this moment we are close.

My yearly projects are a crazy mix of practical work, delirious imagination and a rush of love and connection. How do I convey all those abstract Christmas words – peace, joy, salvation? I make a stuffed Nativity scene. For me, each stitch is a celebration of what I cannot say any other way.

dec post 3



Pandora spends most of her time tinkering with bits of words, fabric and yarn. She lives in Chicago with her husband and a pug. She has two grown up sons who have many adventures.

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9 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    I love this, Pandora! First, you have totally inspired me. I want to learn how to make such cute stuffed nativity figures! Second, your writing is just beautiful. I love your reflections on the meaning people find in making and producing things. “The alchemists who hypothesized that in distilling earthly substance, they would find the secret to an eternal spirit. The Shakers who believed that making something well was an “act of prayer” and worshiped in the simplicity of daily tasks. The pioneers who put their shoulder to the wheel and turned their desert into a garden. My strange gifts are hardly Shaker chairs, but there is purpose in the activity.”

  2. Rachel says:

    Thank you for this post, Pandora. I’ve read it twice now, and am still trying to take it in. I have one sister and one sister-in-law who are makers like you. They bring their magic and their stories and their gifts. I don’t think I am naturally a maker, but I try to be sometimes, I think because of them. One year I made homemade soap, that I am pretty sure only my mom appreciated. Last year I made 23 Christmas pillow cases, because my granny who always made us jammies, also made us pillow cases that we pulled out and fought over and rejoiced in every December. I wanted my nieces and nephews to have that, too, and myself again, and my siblings. So I learned how to sew just enough to make those pillowcases, and I deepened two friendships with the two women who taught me, with a number of months and states in between. It is a beautiful memory for me now, that making, even though I know that it was also a struggle.

    The part in your making story that I love the most is the part when you tell us the stories you tell yourself as you make. Each one was meaningful.

    • Pandora says:

      I am honored by the term “maker” and may start telling people that when they ask what I do.

      Thank you so much for sharing your pillowcase story. I love passing on this “making” tradition. This is a wonderful example of traditional women’s work – useful making – like cooking, stories, organization, healing, pillowcases. The details of how it gets done fade into the memory of all the chatting and frustration and laughter that went into the getting done. “Making” powerful connections.

  3. Em says:

    Oh how I see myself in this! I also always get grandiose ideas and an early start, which inevitably turns into a mild sense of panic by this point in december. Can it possibly get done in time? And yet I think so often the best gifts are the ones that really come from the heart, and what could have more heart than pouring hours of thought and love and effort into someone else?

  4. Heather says:

    My first comment is have you made a sock monkey nativity? Second, I love to read you. Your voice is so clear and strong. You make me see things and feel things and I just drink it up. Thank you for being a maker, a writer, a facilitator, a friend.

  5. Cumorah says:

    I may be Rachel’s maker sister she mentioned…and I resonate with your reasoning, and have been caught in that frenzied finish of staying up all night to conquer the insane gift of love that would have cost me half the price if I had just bought it at Hobby Lobby…but I have moved from a place that felt inspiring to a place where I am so busy and so tired, and sadly, have no energy or time or fight left to be a maker. I hope to someday return to the ring of seeking and storytelling and soul giving of making. Someday. And perhaps I’ll start with a sock monkey nativity. Love that visual Heather.

  6. Jenny says:

    Love this!! You expressed in such a beautiful combination of words, an abstract idea that I have never been able to explain. I have experienced this when I have immersed myself in a creative project, painting murals on my kid’s walls, making Halloween costumes, building or sewing Santa Claus presents. There is something in our creative power that brings us closer to God. I absolutely love the way you expressed it!

  7. EmilyCC says:

    I love Rachel’s term as a “maker” and Pandora, your description of the thought that goes into your creations does seem a holy process of unconditional love and acceptance and the true and deep meaning of Christmas.

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