After a series of catastrophes Ron Mulroy finally discovered how to make the perfect nativity scene
/remember when it started, but why, I cannot recall. I suspect it was one of those dark, wet evenings in late November when Christmas was in the air. I realised that there was something missing in our home life. We had no crib. Now, Christmas without a crib or as it is now called, a "nativity scene" is like a meal without wine.
It did not occur to me to buy one. In fact I didn't know you could. Despite a considerable lack of expertise, I decided to make one, and to make one from materials in the house. A piece of plywood left by the builder formed the base. I needed scenery, hills for the shepherds, roads to guide the kings. I vaguely remembered a Blue Peter programme about papiermach& but didn't remember it well enough. I did know, though, that flour paste and newspaper was the basis and after a thorough soaking I sculpted the landscape to my idea of the Palestinian desert, The trouble was the papier-mache did not dry easily, even in front of the fire. But when the surface was dry I pasted it with glue and scattered sawdust casually, as one might expect in a desert swept by winter winds. The tough grass was fashioned from toothbrush bristles, stained green and brown and fixed in individually drilled holes. Trees were easily acquired from clippings from a yew tree.
And the stable? Ah, the stable.. That was a delight. Made from matchsticks and old pencils, the two segments of the roof fitted into the "rock" and rested together. Then, finally. I fiddled with fairy lights subtly introduced to make lanterns for Joseph and the kings, fires for the shepherds and illumination for the angel. The figures we bought for E2.10.6d. They were unbreakable rubber and hand-painted. We still have them.
Can you imagine my delight? Can you see the joyous children's faces, and the pride of my wife as we gathered around to talk of the Christmas story.
It was Dominic who asked what the smell was. It might have been the delicate perfume of baking bread but it had about it an element of the foetid. And the landscape was changing imperceptibly.
When the stable roof fell in I could no longer avoid the conclusion that the papier-mach6 was fermenting, and even I was a little alarmed by the powderygreen excrescence that began to appear, especially near the fairy lights. That Christmas has been known ever since as the Year of the
Penicillin Crib. I believe it was unique.
By the next Christmas my enthusiasm returned, undimmed by the memory of the previous year. I built a large. authentic inn, cunningly lit inside, with a hand-thatched, lean-to stable at the back.
The scenery was from bark found in a wet December wood. It looked splendid and the woodlice, stirred by the artificial spring of the winter fire, scurried busily about, giving the whole a verisimilitude which stirred the heart.
Unfortunately their regular appearance during the evening's carols frightened the children and we never did get beyond the first verse of "Away in a Manger".
Anyway, my wife said the inn dominated the scene too much and looked like a box with holes in it, covered with Artex. Which it was though there was no need for her to say so.
Seeking an expansion to my expertise, I decided the following year to make my own figures from moulds. This had the added advantage that the kids could join in with their models. Many of the cribs from that era had the odd Bambi, a friendly Lassie and an occasional leaning parrot in attendance on the Holy Family. Bambi and Lassie passed muster, but a very large leaning parrot proved beyond any explanation I could offer. I sold the parrot as an optional extra to a family that was creative, but theologically unsure.
The figures I made were based on Michelangelo's design and I fancied my chances of making a killing at the Christmas fayre. I had reckoned without St Joseph. Our Lady and the Infant were quite easy, though I did tend to produce facial bubbles which, to the untutored eye, made the Holy Family look smitten with smallpox. This would never go down well, of course, especially as it would have distorted the true story of the Flight into Egypt. But, bubbles apart, it was St Joseph who was the problem.
Now, 1 am very fond of St Joseph, but he often poses problems for the crib-maker. In this case, not to put too fine a point upon it, it was his neck. It was too long by half and he had a prominent jaw, what with his beard and all. The result was that, nine times out of 10, in removing the mould I decapitated him. Grafts and transplants were ineffective. I decided to split the rubber mould lengthways. That did it, but only once. After that I had to re-seal it with Sellotape. It was never entirely satisfactory and, from that day to this, you will notice that St Joseph always has a seam down his
back especially in the Michelangelo style.
Not that that was the only problem with St Joseph. He is often standing up and, by that very act, he dictated the size of the stable. I had not appreciated that fact when 1 first started to make the stables and was occasionally embarrassed by phone calls from dissatisfied customers.
They complained that while their children understood that there was no room at the inn, it was difficult to explain to them why there was no room in the stable either for St Joseph anyway.
My woodworking skills have not improved, but the crudity of the design and the final appearance of the stables did give them a certain authenticity. The grosser deficits are disguised with copious amounts of wood stain and an elaborate garnishing with scenic materials from the model shop. The actual making of the stables is a cold and lonely job, for I have long been banished from the kitchen to the garage. It is there, through the evenings and weekends of early winter, that I ply my trade. As I hammer and saw, I hum "... his strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe..." and feel myself at one with all the Christian artists and icon writers. I would like to say that my work is regularly punctuated by pious ejaculations and the like, but I fear my verbal explosions are rarely pious and the garage doors are usually locked lest children are within earshot.
But while I have some control over the design and creation of the stables, I am now in the hands of others so far as the figures are concerned. It was not easy to get figures years ago. One of my special pleasures was to wander various shops and ask if they stocked such things. Usually I was met with blank and puzzled faces. Occasionally the assistant would ask: "You mean like fairies and Santa and that?" or, worse, an offended: "Ooh, we don't have that sort of thing in here."
In the few shops that did sell nativity figures, the conversations were altogether cosier, but tended towards the surreal. "Nice Holy Family, that. Have . you any shepherds to match?" "Shepherds come extra. How many do you want?" (Holy writ is not specific on this point and I always settle for two.) "What about the kings, how much do they come at?" "Ocih, very pricey. Hand-painted gold that is." "I could do with a couple of spare angels... "Sorry, we're out of angels. We're expecting some coming in next week though."
After some years of:this activity, I began to consider "going commercial". I fancied a van with "Ron's Cribs" on the side. I'd thought of my logo and a mission statement: "A Crib for every Home... A Crib is not Just for Christmas."
These were pleasant things to mull over, but the reality was the true delight. As the Christmas fayre drew nearer, the excitement mounted. After we'd cleared the table in the evening, I would bring in the cribs and arrange and rearrange the figures. I spent much of the time bending to get a child's view.
I knew I risked holy sciatica, but it was worth it. 1 called continually to others to come and see. My wife was very tolerant for the most part, but talked of my enthusiasm in that special flat way that wives have mastered.
"Sorry, Ron can't come to the phone at the moment, he's playing cribs. No. Some trouble with the angel, I think. Won't stay up the tree. Yes, I have told him about Blu-Tac, but he says it's not authentic."
I have heard there is a Nativity Society somewhere. I might join if they'll have me. It would be nice to meet someone who understands.