My family was poor when I was growing up. To purchase Christmas gifts for the family, my mom would begin baking pies, cookies and cakes in October for my Dad to bring to his office and sell. Mom’s baked goods were so delicious that every year the orders just kept increasing. We children would usually help ice the cookies (making sure they were done to Mom’s specifications—nothing sloppily made would ever leave her kitchen). As we grew older, we were promoted to packaging the baked goods into boxes for Dad to take to work each morning.
Watching Mom stir and mix the different batters, cut out cookies, make her pies and decorate her cakes, I came up with the idea that she and Dad needed a special gift from their children. It’s not like they didn’t receive gifts from us, but how many paper chains for the Christmas tree could they use? How many hand- painted reindeer could they continue to hang on the walls? Their faces always lit up when they received these gifts from us, but that year I just felt they needed something more special. So, I invited my younger brother and sister to a secret meeting in my bedroom to brainstorm ideas for a special gift, and then to figure out how in the heck we were going to come up with the money to pay for it.
After about an hour of tossing around ideas such as baseball bats, candy, frozen snowballs and bubble gum, we came up with the perfect gift. We should buy them a Nativity set, just like the one the church put out each Christmas. Of course, we wouldn’t get them one with the life-size figurines, but something on a smaller scale that would fit in our home. A Nativity set of our very own, with a Baby Jesus that would be set out after midnight, after the angels announced to the shepherds that a Savior had been born.
My brother and sister looked at me cross-eyed, mouths agape as I began to persuade them why this was such a great idea—better than wrapped packages of candy and bubble gum. Then came the real question: “Pat, how are we going to pay for something like that? We don’t get allowances, we can’t steal the money, and we’re too young to get jobs!” We agreed to hold another secret meeting in the bedroom after we had several days to ponder how to raise the funds for this special gift.
It was my brother who came up with the first idea. He would scour the neighborhood for empty bottles and return them to the local A&P grocery store, where he would collect a penny or two per bottle. My little sister couldn’t come up with any ideas, being three-years-old and all. I decided to write, edit and publish a neighborhood newsletter and sell it for a penny. And we began our yearlong task to put our pennies into a jar hidden away in my clothes drawer.
After Thanksgiving, we decided to count the coins in the jar, and quickly realized we still had some saving to do if we wanted to go to S.S. Kresge’s five and dime to buy the Nativity set we had set our hearts on. I joined my brother looking for empty bottles and sold more copies of my neighborhood newsletter, which now was christened “The Busy Bee Chronicle.” Each copy was handwritten, and always had a feature story about someone in the neighborhood. Who doesn’t like to see their name in print? Especially around the holidays? I worked at increasing “The Busy Bee’s” circulation.
Then it was Christmas Eve. We checked the coin jar in the morning—we had saved a whopping three dollars! Off my brother and I went to Kresge’s. As we trekked through the snow on Madison Street, we discussed what figures the Nativity set should have: Mary and Joseph, Baby Jesus, an angel, a star, three wisemen, a few shepherds, a cow and a donkey. We were jittery with excitement when we got to the spot in the store where the Nativity sets were sold, and then stood in awe at how many shepherds, Wise men, animals and even the Blessed Family from which we could choose! What to do! After several hours of hemming and hawing over each figurine, we finally made our selection, which totaled two dollars and twenty-five cents. As the sales clerk wrapped each piece in tissue paper, my brother and I decided to spend the rest of the money on a plate of French fries at the soda fountain counter. It was hard work picking out our gift, and we were really hungry by the time we were done. We never told our little sister about the French fries because we didn’t want her to feel bad.
That evening, after everyone had gone to bed and we no longer heard our parents talking in the living room, the three of us tiptoed to the living room and placed our gift under the tree, hoping that Santa wouldn’t come and find us still awake. We were jumping with excitement and kept shushing each other so that we didn’t wake up our parents.
Like every home, Christmas morning came very early. Not only were we excited to open our gifts, we could not wait to see the look on our parents’ faces when they opened their gift from us. I will never forget the look on their faces when they didn’t find paper chains or reindeers, but a Nativity set, with all the major people and animals, plus the angel, a star, a manger with straw—and our very own Baby Jesus. My dad smiled and my mom had tears streaming down her face. They were really touched by what we had done and said it was the best Christmas ever. As wrapping paper went flying all over the room as we opened our gifts, Mom and Dad set up the manger, Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus and all the other cast of characters.
Each year after that, our Nativity Set had a special place under the Christmas tree, and Mom and Dad never tired of hearing the story of that Christmas when their three children came up with a plan to surprise them with a real gift, not just paper chains, but a home for our own Baby Jesus, and we could gaze upon the newborn King to our hearts’ content.
Dad and Mom have since “passed over” to eternity, and that Nativity Set now sits in my house. Mom handed it down to me after I got married and made me promise to repeat the story to our children of the year my brother, sister and I came up with the idea to surprise them for Christmas.
Imagine, a Nativity set and the main cast of characters for only two dollars and twenty-five cents. Imagine, Baby Jesus and his family sitting in our home year after year, blessing each and every one of us with the memories of family love that only Jesus could have given to each of us as a gift, and the promise of salvation to those who believe.