One of the casualties of Hurricane Matthew was a huge pine tree at the edge of the yard at my sister’s home down at Clement. The tree fell across the lower driveway and nearly covered most of the side yard, which faces Maxwell Road. A couple of weeks later, I talked to my sister about the cleanup. They were having a problem getting the insurance adjuster to check on the damage, and lining up the tree service to do the cutting and cleanup.
I jokingly told her, “You know you have to have it cleaned up by the first of December.”
“Don’t worry,” Gail answered. “It will be.” And it was. Why? Because the manger scene has to be put up.
It’s been going up for over fifty years so the family can’t stop now. Since Gail and her husband, Danny, moved into Daddy’s house after his passing a few years ago, they have continued the tradition. They’ve gotten smarter in putting it up. The manger now stays assembled, and they haul it from out at the barn with the tractor. They use a drill and screws attaching the characters of the manger story.
It was a little different back in the years when Pa was alive. And I helped put it up for at least forty of them. The manger scene consists of plywood cutouts of all the characters of the nativity. Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, the wise men, sheep, camels, a donkey and, of course, baby Jesus. The manger itself is plywood, with the back and the two sides and roof. When daddy built the manger he made it easy to take apart, put together and store. Well, most of the time it was easy.
Every year after Thanksgiving it would be time. First, we would load the manger on the back of the pickup at the barn and take it out and set it up. Most of the time it wasn’t that difficult, although setting the roof on top of the walls could be a little tricky. Then it was time to place the characters. And every character had a place. Mary, Joseph and Jesus under the manger. Shepherds, animals and wise men outside the manger, but each at a specific spot. Pa made sure of that. We would drive a tobacco stick in the ground and nail each cutout to the sticks to hold them up. We would put the star over the manger and set the spotlight and we would be finished.
It must have been a tradition because it was something we did every year. To be honest, many times I was busy and really didn’t want to bother with it. But I would get that phone call saying, “What are you doing tomorrow? You know we’ve got to put up the manger scene.” So I would head down to Clement. Daddy was very particular and organized. Everything had a place and it had to be done right. It could be very frustrating to someone in a hurry to get done, like me.
But I had noticed that over the past few years prior to his passing, putting up the manger scene had become more important to daddy. He would say something like, “Well, I don’t know about next year, but we got it up again this year.”
My thoughts go back to that last year (You never really know when it’s the last year, do you?) when Daddy, Terri and I put up the manger scene. Pa was supervising while sitting in a chair, pointing to where everything was supposed to go. And I was getting frustrated. I was nailing up the manger and it wasn’t going very well. Daddy was an excellent carpenter. I’m not. I suppose it must skip a generation or something.
“Why do we have to put up this thing every year?” I thought. No, I wasn’t thinking about little baby Jesus in that cradle I was nailing on at that moment. Terri knew what I was feeling and walked over to me.
“Remember, cherish the moment,” she whispered.
She was right. Here I am with my two favorite people in this world, doing something together, and I’m getting upset over bending a stupid nail and a pointing finger. I calmed down and started actually cherishing the moment. Of course, my nephew, Joey, driving up and getting Pa to ride with him to check on something also helped. After we finished, Pa, Terri and I went to Hardee’s for supper. We laughed and enjoyed ourselves because the manger scene had been put up one more time. I ended up cherishing the moment. Now I really cherish that moment, because just a couple of months later he was gone.
A friend of mine who was raised in the Clement community told me the other day that he always knew that Christmas was coming soon when he went by Mr. L.F.’s and saw the manger scene. So, folks, it’s officially the Christmas season. The manger scene has been put up, one more year.
Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at [email protected]