Earthworms’ Castings: Ten-Minute Nativity

By Jean Ponzi

Holiday Time returns after Big Time Out for our whole species. Hurtle with me Back in Time, two-score Earth years, to a Time-Turning point. Cheers!

*  *  *

In Nineteen Hundred Ninety-Six, the Festive Season almost lost an intense competition with Work for my small family’s celebratory attention.

My husband Dale was custom-building all the kitchen cabinetry for our best friends’ new home. The project was running months behind but getting the kitchen functioning in time for Christmas became a goal as symbolic to them as it was practical. Dale was on that job site juggling schedules with electricians, drywall crews, flooring guys and his own installation demands, non-stop, throughout December.

I was writing major grants. Three of them, due December 22. This funding agent apparently believed the Holiday Season would provide the calm, reflective peace they’d need to properly review their applicants’ requests for the New Year. The work did, however, save me from the malls.

There were no parties for us, no caroling, no fresh-baked cookies. We had no tree in our house, because we knew we wouldn’t be home enough to enjoy it, let alone find time for memory-making with décor.

In the fall I had decided to create a Créche. We like to get the characters for this kind of scene wherever we find them, relying on serendipity as our path to acquisition. We enjoy a mix of scale and style in displays and figures, continuing a tradition from Dale’s childhood. 

As his family grew, so did their Christmas Tree Village, where celluloid animals and plastic snowmen and glitter-pasteboard choirgirls and metal cars and the Holy Family and a swan-flanked mirror bathing-pool for his Mom’s tiny 1920’s china naked ladies all came out for a time each year on a special model train-track platform that Dale’s Dad built. 

My dear husband found the first two figures for our Créche at Tin Roof Antiques, right around the corner, days after I announced my intention. A pâpier-maché bull and donkey, maybe Mexican in origin, and about as big as children’s shoes. We’d gather more characters as the year went on, and a truly special manger scene could grow into our newly married life. 

Suddenly it was the week before Christmas. I noticed in hasty passing there were only two animals standing in our display. It was going to be a long wait for the Messiah.

The longest night of Winter Solstice was barely a nap. Dale had compassionately taken on the task of providing Homeowner Therapy to our distraught and dislocated friends, in addition to his duties as a craftsman. His waxing workdays fast outstripped the measured increase of the Light. 

I had to go alone to all our favorite present-shopping places: Coyote’s Paw, Faru, Plowsharing Crafts, Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, and that old standby, Builder’s Square. I pretended I was a Wise (wo)Man, to have some imaginary company while I quickly quested for whatever gifts we’d give. 

December 24th I left work early, with a few precious hours before we were due to make merry with my husband’s family. 

Fortunately, they all live in a five-mile radius. Come Christmas morning we would hit the 

Interstate aiming for my family’s Christmas Dinner, in far-north suburbs of Chicago, six hours away. But that was tonight and tomorrow’s agenda. 

Just now one little interval opened before me like the heavens over Bethlehem, a chance to bask a wee bit in the True Meaning of Christmas. I relaxed my shoulders and considered the options. 

Shopping – done. 

Presents – wrapped (mostly). 

Laundry – would wait. 

Pudding pie to bring for dessert, takes maybe fifteen minutes to make, and can chill while the family shares traditional Christmas Eve spam sandwiches. 

Time for a personal holiday field trip!

I had read in a local paper about a Moravian Lutheran minister who collected Nativity scenes for years, from all around the world. He’d created a display at his church, and the public was welcome to view the scene and relive The Story. 

I called for directions. Someone would be there until two. It was half-past one, and I sped to the highway.  

I sprinted into a silent building at 1:45, calling hopefully “Hello!” along a hall of closed doors. Minutes were passing. One office had one person in it. She was straightening her desk to leave, but kindly led me along the empty corridor to a classroom, one of those timeless cubes of pale greenish cinderblocks.

Folding chairs were set up facing a low platform. A row of little evergreen trees trimmed with white lights separated the display from a banked array of switch boxes, cables and sound equipment that controlled it. The church lady turned off the overhead fluorescent lights, pressed a “Start” button, and gently closed the door behind her.

The lights began to twinkle on the trees. I sat on the floor, right up next to the platform, my heart open to receive the age-old message. Hundreds of figures, made in dozens of different styles and sizes, were arranged in vignettes all over a wavy green velvet terrain, snow-banked by cotton batting. 

I heard a tape machine start up. I knew instantly by the motor sound the mechanism was malfunctioning, going too fast. What were surely supposed to be pealing chimes tinked out like digital doorbells. Then the narrator, no doubt a resonant baritone worthy of time on The Lutheran Hour, began to squeak. 

And it came to pass a decree went out from Cesar Augustus, that all men should be taxed…” 

Lights winked on briefly in a carved wooden town, with no room at any inn for a poor family in travail. A transparent phalanx of blown-glass angels, dizzily rotating on a tinsel star, allayed the fears of clay shepherds, keeping watch on their knitted flocks by night. Brass Magi approached a hollow-log grotto, where the programmed lights lingered on in the manger just long enough to catch my falling tear. 

I realized I was on my knees, leaning over, nose-to-camel, into the little saga below me.

The well-intentioned narrator had become an Animaniac, careening through St. Luke’s account of the Birth of Christ like a Six Flags thrill ride.

Toy-like trumpets tooted into a crescendo, all the lights in all the little scenes came on, and the narrator chirped out mightily, “GlorytoGodinthehighestandonearthpeace,goodwilltoall!!!”

The scenes went dark. 

I heard the tape begin to rewind and held my breath, still in a sheer emotional G-force. I flopped back on my heels, catching sight of a school clock above the pines, ticking seconds to the stroke of two. 

God became one of us in this miniature world, and changed it forever, in ten minutes flat. 

*  *  *

I gaze into a crystallized feeling, from that holiday more than a third of my life ago. 

I was in my 40s then, a new wife and a working powerhouse. Our dear friend who awaited her kitchen that Christmas has left this life. Pandemic Time has shifted my professional and personal pace. Overall, for the better, with Hustle Halted, way less running around. Life flows on.

Time invested now in Feeling – well! – as both study and practice. For all seasons.


Jean Ponzi does Green work around St. Louis, for the EarthWays Center of Missouri Botanical Garden and as longtime volunteer producer and host of Earthworms enviro-conversations for KDHX St. Louis Independent Media. She has written for The Healthy Planet since 1997, when this story was first shared.

Word Count: 1,700 or so