A holy family heirloom.

When I was a very little boy, Dad built a miniature Christmas stable. I grew up seeing the brown wood structure sitting under the soft, green, pine branches each December, with the infant Jesus lying in the manger, Joseph and Mary standing by their son’s side, cattle and sheep resting indoors and out, and a vigilant angel poised on the roof. 

As I got older, I never thought to ask Dad whether the sticks that comprised the outer walls and served as the entrance posts had been cut by him from one of our own yuletide trees. 

It wouldn’t have surprised me if he did. He was creative like that.

That’s how Christmas stories begin, isn’t it? Their origins can be murky, spawned in mixes of imagination and fact. I can fancy Dad clipping off two brown perpendicular cuts from a branch after the family tree had been taken down, maybe in January of ’53 or ’54. He would have measured them carefully. They’d serve opposite one another as rails and posts at the stable’s opening. Sure, that’s how he did it. Or I’d like to think so.

Holiday gatherings now with grandparents, moms, dads, uncles, aunts and kids bring together a flow of many stories. You do this every year, once a year, over decades and the tales run and change. You might recall a turkey dinner Mom served that turned out a certain way — maybe it was kind of dry. 

But what you most remember is that she apologized for it not being juicy enough. That was Mom’s way. The story gets told now, years later with Mom gone, and all you really care about is embracing the reality of what a sweet woman she was. The particular bird’s moistness fades into the shadows. What Mom was like is what matters.

Some enduring surviving narratives remain funny. Like my annual recounting of my “Christmas of ’57”. I was four. Mom and Dad had asked me what I wanted for Christmas that year, and I told them excitedly about a toy gun and holster set, complete with a sheriff’s badge. They seemed to take note as if that’s what they would get me. But when I went down to the tree that special morning, they happily showed me, already set up and ready to use, a stand-up drawing board with colored chalk and an eraser. I was incredulous … crestfallen even. I couldn’t be the sheriff with a blue piece of chalk!

I got over it. But the story lived forward into many mornings and present-opening sessions with my parents, sisters and brother. I’d tease Mom about it. She’d groan. I’m sure I’ll bring up the Christmas of ’57 at sister Mary’s this year. 

And then there are the ornaments. Over the years, don’t some of them become like old friends? You put them away after the tree comes down and bring them out again in December. Here’s the gold and white dragon from Ljubljana. Here’s the lace snowflake tatted by Grandma Kordesh. One by one, you get reacquainted as you hang them. When the branches are full of them, they’re aglow with stories.

What new stories will we begin to write this season? They might be shaped by who unexpectedly shows up. They might be flavored by a new main dish for dinner. Maybe we’ll convene in a different setting: a new house or a city to which someone in the family has recently moved.

How much does it matter that our stories adhere to the literal truth? Myths build over time, fed by real events but colored by embellishment and changing interpretations of what’s relevant. 

I’ll see that stable again at Mary’s during the party for our extended family. I’ll continue to wonder where Dad got those pieces for it. Did they once grow on our own Christmas tree? That would be an appealing addition to its story. But what matters most is that he built it for us. 

Years later we get to keep telling new, little arrivals in the family that their great-grandpa did just that. 

That’s enough for me.

Join the discussion on social media!