Our dusty African nativity set is showing its age. One wiseman’s detached head rolls on the ground near the manger; another worshipping king’s body has come unglued from his feet. The cow is permanently missing one of its curled long horns. In our second pandemic-fraught holiday season, the scene reminds me of a Christmas long ago that was far from “normal.” Wrapped up in that memory is the hard-won understanding that, in the bleakest of circumstances, the gift of Immanuel, God incarnate, can still shine.
It was 1979 when this manger scene became part of our Christmas decor. Our home that year was a flat on the campus of Lagos University Teaching Hospital in Lagos, Nigeria where my husband, David, was teaching medical school, and I was an elementary school music teacher. This was our toddler son’s second Christmas, but all the familiar markers of the season were missing: no cards, no decorations, no homemade baking, no family get-togethers. We were determined to improvise.
In mid-November that year, I composed a blithely cheerful poem about what Christmas in Lagos was going to be like. I transcribed the lines onto several dozen onion-paper-thin, pale blue aerograms using red and green ballpoint “biros” found at a stationery stall in the market. This small festive flourish felt like a huge achievement. Christmas cards—done!
On weekends we often went to the “Bar Beach” where powerful, white-capped Atlantic waves crashed on the sand and vendors strolled by with fruit, fabric, and crafts. As Christmas approached, I spied a seller with a handcrafted nativity scene: African figures carved from contrasting light and dark thornwood. He finally agreed to a price I could (barely) afford.