Michael Harding: Mary and Jesus have gone off on the bus and I want them back
A child rearranged my crib, leaving only the donkey, ‘because it’s a stable and he’s a donkey’
“Where are all the other little people that were in the crib?” I asked. “They went off on the bus,” Melody said cheerfully. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
I put the crib up last week because I don’t like having to do everything on the days before December 25th, and it was perched on the mantelpiece when a young couple arrived from Dublin for lunch, with their five-year-old daughter. The parents are sophisticated artists. He wears a rainbow-coloured tea cosy on his head, and she is so slim that when she swallows a sliver of apple you can follow it going all the way down to her stomach. Their daughter’s name is Melody and she had not seen a crib before in someone’s house. I think her parents don’t like to expose her to sectarian images of one particular religion, so Melody guessed that the little crib was a replica of Santa’s grotto in her local shopping mall. I told her it wasn’t. “It’s a place where a homeless pregnant woman long ago crashed out for the night, because she was about to give birth to God.”
The child stared at me and her father frowned, and so I changed the subject and left the child to her own designs. But Melody persisted playing with the crib. She put the sheep inside the stable but left the shepherds outside. Then she put the wise men and the angel outside with the shepherds.
I asked her why were they all in one straight line outside. She explained that they were waiting for a bus. I suppose she was using the figures in an unconscious way to express her own experience, not unlike what sand-play therapists observe when they work with children.
Frightened young woman
Even in my own childhood I used the crib to act out dramas that I was not quite conscious of. Our crib sat beneath the Christmas tree in the hall long ago. The figures were made of white plaster, and their faces were cold and glazed, but my imagination transformed them into living creatures. Mary’s hands were broken off, and the baby in the straw was far too big in proportion to the mother, but I could still imagine the stable and the poverty and the frightened young woman giving birth to her holy child in long ago Bethlehem.
That little crib survived for decades, though Mary was without hands, and two of the wise men lost their heads. Then in 1989 I found a crib in a local craft shop in the Navaho territories of Arizona. It contained all the usual suspects dressed in Navaho costumes.
And that crib took pride of place on the mantel piece for years and was still in good condition last week when Melody was playing with it.
The dinner continued. The ash wheezed behind the glass of the stove. The slanting sun shone in the window across the dinner table. And we forgot about the crib, until the child tugged her father’s arm and told him that she had made a new crib, and could he come into the other room to view it.
So we all went to examine what she had done. The crib was sitting in it’s usual place on the mantelpiece. But there was no angel on the roof. And no wise men at the side. And no shepherds or lambs kneeling beside the manger. There wasn’t even a sign of Joseph or Mary or Jesus in the frame. In fact the crib was empty apart from a donkey; an old toy that my daughter had loved when she was a child. And there he stood, ER, as depressed as myself looking out from the godless stable.
“That’s better,” the child explained, “because it’s a stable and he’s a donkey.”
Her father greatly admired the child’s logic and praised her accordingly. And even I liked the simplicity of it; the sadness in the donkey’s eyes, the shift from a crib that affirmed love as the divine and certain ground of all being, towards the more existential modernist anxiety expressed in the face of the famous donkey.
“It’s appalling how Christians treat animals,” Melody’s father declared, and I didn’t argue. We all went into the sitting room and sat on sofas where Melody played with the big black cat.
“As a matter of interest,” I wondered, “where are all the other little people that were in the crib?”
“They went off on the bus,” Melody said cheerfully. And her father seemed particularly pleased.
“Such a vivid imagination,” he exclaimed as he lifted her on his knee and she fondled ER and I hoped that my holy Mary would come back soon on the bus with her baby Jesus from where ever she had gone to find refuge from the modernists.