The neighbors used to visit before Christmas to admire the newly decorated tree. Gradually, this tradition receded into visiting afterwards to absorb the total effect of the tree and the newly stacked gifts beneath. With it came the slightly neurotic practice of carefully repackaging and returning our toys to the display after use. The first time I remember this interfering with common sense was the year that Lucy got a new bike. It was a mild winter and the streets were clean on Christmas morning. As the older brother, I accompanied her to Main Street, riding alongside in my year old ten-speed. The sidewalk was jammed with new bikes, bright white roller skates, and skateboards.
Upon our return, we were handed a bucket and instructed to wash the tires of the bike and wheel it inside to stand over the awkwardly arranged household items piled around the tree. It looked as if someone was packing for a trip. The first year, my father’s new luggage set cemented the image in my mind. My mother carefully stacked our new winter sweaters and jeans, a toaster oven, blankets, a gold necklace, and an assortment of toys around the suitcases.
Lucy’s pet Jesus year must have occurred before my parents’ mock packing tradition. The nativity set was still under the tree when the neighbors visited. That Christmas season, my mother’s hairdresser gave the children pet rocks that she’d made with her husband’s rock tumbler and copper wire. I thanked her and promptly forgot about my rock, but Lucy was determined to extract some fun from her new toy. The faux ivory nativity set was browning with age. Lucy’s pet rock was similar in size and color, but the gloss stood out next to the dull, antique figurines. I vaguely understood the principal at work when Lucy traded the rock for the tiny Jesus.
She began resting the rock in the manger and carrying the Jesus figurine in her pocket. At random moments, she’d pull him out and cry, “Pet Jesus!” My mother was horrified. We weren’t a churchgoing family. The nativity set was a family heirloom. She absolutely could not make Lucy understand the important difference between the rock the beautician had given her and the figure under our Christmas tree. No matter how closely my mother guarded Jesus, Lucy always managed to make the switch. It came to a head on Christmas Eve.
Somehow, while my mother was fussing over the decorations, she failed to notice that Lucy had made an alteration of her own. The first couple of visitors did not detect the slumbering rock. Everything went smoothly until Lucy introduced her friend to Mrs. Phelps, the proud owner of the town’s largest nativity set. She was sitting Indian-style at Mrs. Phelps’ feet, her fists jammed in the hollow of her curled legs. Suddenly, she pulled at Mrs. Phelps’ skirt, manically announcing, “Pet Jesus!” as he appeared from her unfurling hand. My father wordlessly stepped forward, slipped his hands under Lucy’s arms and carried her from the room. Her legs remained crossed as she laughed her way up the stairs. The room was silent. Mrs. Phelps instinctively put her hand to her throat, as if physically trying to suppress reaction. I followed her eyes to the shiny lump in the manger, and then looked back at Mrs. Phelps, still politely expressing her indignation with her body.
That’s when I went the way of Lucy. My mother attempted to quiet me, but it was no use. Tears rolled down my cheeks. The neighbors were staring. I couldn’t breathe. I was being very immature and I wanted to stop. It was becoming painful. My father ended it when he returned to the bottom of the steps. He pointed from across the room. “Out!” I ducked under his arm, up the stairs, past my bedroom, and collapsed in a heap of laughter on Lucy’s floor. Upon my entrance, Lucy stood on the bed, raised the figure high above her head and triumphantly squealed, “Pet Jesus!” before flinging herself back down.
I don’t know if that was the last year of the pre-Christmas visitors, but it was certainly the last year of the nativity set.