Tradition is a funny thing. Sometimes it takes only one occurrance for something to be declared a tradition. For us, this often happens with food:
- Cookie Dough Brownies replacing Wesson Wonder Brownies
- Key Lime Pie joining the Thanksgiving pie lineup
- Hamburger Special (a casserole recipe from the 1960s my mom cut out of the Chicago Tribune) becoming a staple
Other traditions build up over time, gradually ensnaring us, without our consciously thinking about it.
My parents got married 20 December 1944, and celebrated an anniversary around that same time every year. Amazing how that works! Imagine my poor Dad—not only did he have to come up with a Christmas present each year, but he needed an anniversary gift 4 days earlier!
Before the creation of shopping malls, most towns had a local “gift shop.” In Hinsdale, that place was Stolte’s. It was located in the Grant Square Shopping Center, a stone’s throw away from Hinsdale’s official downtown stores. Grant Square was an L-shaped (as opposed to strip) mall, anchored on the north leg by the Hinsdale Federal Savings and Loan (now, Evergreen Bank Group), and on the west leg by Kramer’s IGA (still there!). Stolte’s was right next to Kramer’s, but went out of business somewhere along the way. The Walgreens that had been at the corner of the shops is now located in the larger space previously occupied by Stolte’s.
During the 1950’s-1970s, Stolte’s was the go-to place for gift and knick-knacky items. My dad took my older siblings there to pick out small Hummel figurines that cost only $2-5. Carole, Bob, & Warren could pool their allowances and choose a cute one for Mom for Christmas. My Josef angels were usually acquired from there. Its location next to Kramer’s made it convenient to pop in to see what they had, if you needed a gift.
In December, 1960, my dad wandered into Stolte’s looking for something for their anniversary. He saw a crèche (manger scene) sitting on the shelf, and decided to buy that. The figurines were made in Italy. I don’t know exactly what they are made of. They are lightweight—definitely not ceramic—but certainly not plastic, either. Some Etsy web pages showing similar figurines identify them as resin, and some as “chalkware plaster.” The latter is referred to as be heavier, so I’ll go with resin.
The figures were nicely painted, and pretty, but what really drew my dad to the set was the stable that came with it for the setting. Many stables for nativity sets are very polished-looking. No livestock ever lived in there! But not this one. It was very rough and rustic, with straw on the roof, and reminded him of the ones he built as a kid.
When he was growing up, one of the priests at Holy Cross Church, in Deerfield, held a “contest” in December for the kids to build a manger to house a Christmas scene. They used whatever scrap wood and nails they could put their hands on, and they certainly looked kid-made. This stable fit the bill and spoke to my dad. He bought the set and brought it home.
Mom really liked it, and found a spot for it on the low bookcase that backed up to the stairway. That was its spot until we moved from that house in 1977. I don’t recall its location in the new house. It didn’t actually live in that house very long. When I got married, before Christmas that year, Mom & Dad brought two boxes to our apartment. One was their artificial Christmas tree (the apartment complex forbade live trees), and the other was the manger. Mom had recently acquired a Goebel (NOT Hummel!) manger set, and was giving the old one to me. She said it was mostly mine, anyway.
When she received the set in 1960, I was 2½, and absolutely fascinated by it. On the low bookcase, I could just barely reach the figurines. Mom would arrange them, and I would rearrange them. Even at that young age, I understood they weren’t toys or dolls, and didn’t “play” with them. I didn’t “walk” them around, or have them “talk” to each other, or remove them from the manger area. But I definitely had opinions about where the sheep, wise men, shepherds, and camel should be placed!
Nothing changed as I grew older. Mom would arrange—and I would rearrange—the figures many times each Christmas season. She saw that I was careful with them, though, and realized it was a losing battle to try and keep my hands off them. Twenty years later, she officially gave the set to me. It still goes up every Christmas, and I arrange—and rearrange—the figurines throughout the season.
At some point, my dad purchased a set of miniature white lights he would string around the outside and inside of the stable. That light string eventually died, and never made it to me. Several years ago, though, I found an LED light set that works equally well. So that tradition resumed.
At almost 60 years old, the figurines are beginning to show a little wear; a little bit of chipping is appearing along the bottom edge on some, and the wire loop in the angel’s back (so she can hang on the nail at the peak of the roof) is a little more wobbly than it used to be. They are holding up fairly well, though, and nothing has broken (knock on wood!).
You may be thinking it’s nice there are several traditions being maintained:
- the rough-hewn stable reminiscent of my dad’s childhood
- setting it up each year and rearranging the figurines
- Miniature lights around it
But there are other traditions surrounding the manger, having nothing to do with what sits out on display.
We’ll start with the box. There is no “manger box from Italy.” The store packed the set into a “West Virginia Glass” box they had from other merchandise. It still has an address label, identifying the store. Inside the bottom is a divided insert with soft, “mossy” cushion material that I’m sure belongs to the figurines—the dividers are irregularly spaced, corresponding to the figurines’ dimensions. It was certainly not for glassware! The stable sets in on top of the figurines, and reaches just to the top of the box.
The box fits the manger set perfectly. Unfortunately, the cardboard is almost 60 years old, too, and deteriorating. I’ve been taping the top flaps for years, and have begun to tape the verticle corners. “Get a new box,” you say. What are the odds I will find a box with those exact dimensions? I’d say slim and none, so I keep the tape handy, and treat the box gently.
Then there’s the additional packing material inside. When my mom set it up the first time, she noticed the bottom of the stable was rough. The bookcase it was going on wasn’t particularly expensive, but she still didn’t want the top to be scratched if the stable was bumped or slid around on the top. So she took a section of the 20 December 1960 (the day she received the set) Chicago Tribune and folded it to the exact dimensions of the stable’s base. One barely notices there’s newspaper under it.
Similarly, Mom decided she wanted a layer between the stable and the figurines in the tray below—something in addition to what was protecting the bookcase. She was worried about the stable shifting around in the box and rubbing against the paint on the figurines as the box moved to and from the attic. So there’s another, considerably thicker, section of the Tribune from that day on top of the figurines. Along the way, addional sections of the Tribune were added from 3 January 1969, 31 December 1974, and 22 December 1978. Why? I have no idea.
Have you handled 60-year-old newsprint recently? It’s tricky! The paper is brittle and fragile, with bits crumbling off the edges. More than once in 38 years I’ve thought about replacing them with “fresh” sections, but I just can’t. Why?
For the last half century, I’ve been reading the headlines, articles, and captions on those papers. Depending on the year, and how rushed I am with decorating, I may read less or more, but I always (re)read some of it. Actually, only the front and back page of each section. The paper is too dried out now to risk opening them up to read the inside pages. Not only do they document the date my mom received the manger, they document what life was like at the time. I recall what the news was, what the fashions were, and how much they cost. It’s my own mini time capsule.
Remember Pat Harrington, Jr., playing Schneider on One Day at a Time? The show began my senior year of high school, and some of my friends had the hots for him. Seriously? He was 46 at the time! Imagine my surprise that next Christmas, seeing the 1960 photo and article about 31-year-old Harrington headlining at one of the local playhouses! The name and photo that meant nothing to me for years, suddenly had meaning. It boggled my mind, then. I couldn’t find it, tonight, so it must have been inside a section (when they could still be opened up, safely!). But I DID see that “Bob” (Robert) Conrad was starring in an upcoming Hawaiian Eye episode. He was from Chicago, so locals wanted to keep up on what he was doing.
Tradition. It can lock us into stagnation, or anchor us to important people, places, and events. Ideally, we jettison (or at least modify) the former, and cherish the latter.