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The homemade Nativity scene that Kathy Berken ’71 began assembling when she was 8 years old will make its 62nd appearance this Christmas season.

Little Jesus Sweetly Sleep: Makeshift Christmas Crib Gives Meaning to the Season Through Six Decades and Counting

A child’s act of devotion began a Christmas tradition that has continued through six decades. This Christmas, Kathy Berken ’71 will once again be unpacking the crèche she improvised at the age of 8 and has cherished ever since. Berken takes up the tale:

Let’s say you came across a dirty old orange-and-black cardboard Halloween box with a flying witch on the cover advertising 12 caramel-coated apples for 59 cents (down from 99 cents). You opened the cover and found a pile of old Lincoln Logs and some oddly cut-out pictures of angels and kings, a red plastic star, a very tiny plastic baby doll, a little dirty-white plastic lamb, a couple of broken-looking gray plaster sheep, and three tired and worn-out statues of Mary, Joseph and a shepherd. Would you say, “What in the world?!” Or just, “Why?!”

If you didn’t know better, you might just toss it in the trash.

But please don’t. What you are holding in your hands is one of the most cherished treasures of my entire life.

When we moved to Germantown, Wis., from Milwaukee in 1957, my mother decided it was time to get a new nativity set. The baby Jesus was missing from this one that didn’t quite make the move, and she probably uttered something like “That’s the last straw,” unaware of the pun because my mom was like that. So, she asked me if I wanted the set. Yes, please! What an honor! I took the well-worn pieces to my room and laid them out: Mary, Joseph, a shepherd, and two gray sheep standing on their own little bases. And a square of dirty cotton batting. I really wanted more pieces, or, at the very least, a new baby Jesus.

I dug through all my toys and discovered a perfectly proportioned tiny plastic baby doll in a sitting position, with its arms outstretched, wearing only a diaper. Perfect! I also snagged a lamb from our farm set, and a bright-red, plastic, star-shaped ornament from our collection and tied a piece of tinsel to it. What do I do about angels, the Wise Men, and a stable?

My mom found some old, used Christmas cards (because who didn’t save Christmas cards from one year to the next?) and I cut out a red angel, a white angel, and a gold-colored embossed picture of the Three Kings. Because the kings were separate on the card, I had to cut out and then tape the two kings to the third one so they appeared as one group. I never found a donkey or an ox that was the right size. Oh well. They would have had to sit outside the stable anyway, and so what’s the point?

Now for the stable. Of course, Lincoln Logs. Since I was the only one of the three of us kids who ever played with them, I felt rightful ownership of the set. I dumped out all the pieces on my little work table and unfolded the large piece of paper with blue line drawings suggesting construction projects. Naturally, there was a log cabin. I did my best to assemble what I saw. The proportions perfectly fit my little Holy Family figures. My dad, ever the junk collector, found a small light socket that likely came from an old broken lamp. It had a long fabric-covered brown cord with a cardboard tube attached. (Never throw anything away because you never know when you might need it.) Our old-fashioned Christmas bulbs fit. My stable would have light, or maybe I could use it as the star in the east. It was cool because I used a blue bulb; but, warning: Don’t rest the bulb against anything flammable such as wooden Lincoln Logs for fear of fire. I propped it up by the cardboard tube.

That was in 1957 when I was 8 years old. I turned 70 this year and I have kept that set in the same Halloween box, which my mother labeled in red ink, “Kathy Small Xmas Crib,” and have assembled it every single year since. Yes, every single year, through all my years of school, several moves, bouts of cancer and chemo, 10 years in a L’Arche community, and three years at the Sisters of St. Joseph retirement home while going to grad school. One busy December in L’Arche, I just brought it to our Friday assistants’ meeting and put it together there, because I had to keep the tradition alive. And without having saved the picture or writing down the assembly instructions, it wasn’t until just last year that I successfully put it together on the first try.

For the first several years, I used the original cotton batting for the snow base. (As if there was snow in Bethlehem. But when you live in the Midwest, Christmas has snow, and apparently so did Jesus.) But that has been replaced over the years with felt and, later, a kitchen towel. One of the two paper angels mysteriously disappeared so I duly replaced it with another paper cutout from a Christmas card. The old light socket died decades ago, and I never replaced it – always fearing fire, I guess. I added two Christmas-themed vigil light candles at one point but they don’t measure up to the original blue bulb. And the straw that I had first used eventually got lost or went missing, so about 25 years ago, I asked a colleague who lived on a farm to bring me a handful of straw from her barn. She walked into my office the next day with a brown grocery bag filled with the real thing, smell and all. Ahhh!

Some 15 years ago, on a whim, I bought a complete five-inch Fontinini Nativity set I saw advertised for a ridiculously low price. I set it up alongside my Lincoln Log set. There is no comparison. The Fontinini display is really gorgeous. But my set? Beautiful in the way a mother and grandmother think all her children and grandchildren are beautiful. And precious. And embedded in her heart and soul.

Little Jesus sweetly sleep,
Do not stir,
We will lend a coat of fur.
We will rock you, rock you, rock you.
We will rock you, rock you, rock you.
See the fur to keep you warm,
Snugly round your tiny form.

– Traditional Christmas carol from Czechoslovakia

Dec. 10, 2019