My sister and I called the nativity the “manger scene”. We would get the set out of the attic for the first Sunday in Advent. The scene had the holy family, of course, and an assortment of angels, but also a cow, donkey, two sheep, and a shepherd. My grandmother’s set was so huge it stretched across her fireplace mantel. At one end a group of shepherds sat around a fire with a herd of sheep. On the other end were three kings with their camels, a well with a tiny moving bucket, and more angels. Mary, baby Jesus, and Joseph were in the center.
When my sons were born, we got a nativity set, which they often played with in their early years. The baby Jesus disappeared and we had to replace him, so he looks a little different from his parents. Since the death of my parents and grandparents I have added an assortment of their figures, plus a large bean bag serpent (a gift from friends when I was writing Snakes), several goats (all of these gifts), a large rabbit (family heirloom no one else wanted), and pictures of our several deceased relatives, friends, and animals.
St. Francis overlooks all of this. This saint loves animals. I realize the appropriateness of the word “manger” as a manger is a feeding trough for animals. By nurturing the animal within, our embodied selves, we await a new consciousness born in matter.
This poem addresses this. I wrote it when our goats first came into my life.
Grey day and rain, all night, rain.
I bring aromatic oat hay fragrant from July fields
and the goats wait, fat as potatoes from a week
of waiting. Waiting… for sun. The world is damp and sodden.
I smooth the stiff hair along the spine
of each fat black body, each warm earth body,
hunkered down in the darkened barn,
one small window embroidered by spider.
Pungent from a week of confinement,
steamy from body heat and urine,
they nuzzle the fresh straw I bring, then sink deep into it, tucking stocky legs underneath, to ruminate and to wait…
Now I understand why Christ was born somewhere like this,
in our animalness, almond eyes glistening in the dim light,
sturdy bodies full of vitality, gaining substance
from the wait. I understand
why It happens in the longest darkness, in the whisper
of animal breath and the stinging scent of straw
dampened by days of goats waiting out storms.
First published in Psychological Perspectives, (Vol. 44, 2002)