I was brought up Roman Catholic in Winchester, England. Like all Catholic families, we had various traditions leading up to Christmas -- the Advent Calendar, the list for Father Christmas (a.k.a. Santa Claus), and the putting together of the Creche. Actually, we didn’t call it a crèche in our house, we called it the crib scene. Anyway, every year we would unpack each item and place it lovingly in the open wooden shed: Mary, Joseph, the Baby Jesus, all the shepherds, the sheep, the donkey, an assortment of other animals, the wise men, the camels, the angels, etc. As you know, everyone was present at the birth of Jesus on 25th December AD 0000, at least that's what I thought.
When I was 9 years old, I unpacked the Nativity pieces ready to put together the Christmas scene. The previous year, we’d lost the little manger and everyone had been rather upset. We’d had to use an empty matchbox, you know, one of those little purple boxes made of balsa wood. The baby Jesus nestled in cotton wool quite comfortably until Epiphany on 6th January. But this year I was horrified to find that the baby Jesus had disappeared too. So now we had no baby Jesus and no manger. This was serious. I don’t mean to be funny but when I was growing up, and particularly in my family, there wasn’t the kind of ready cash people seem to have nowadays, and there certainly weren’t any credit cards. The loss of the baby Jesus and his manger was a big deal.
And so it was that I found myself on Saturday morning, walking around Woolworths on Winchester High Street. I don’t know if Woolworths in America was the same as Woolworths in England. Long aisles with a shop assistant marching up and down like a warden, keeping an eye on counters that were filled with goodies, everything costing under a shilling. Oh dear, English money before decimalization. Alright, here we go. A shilling was 12 pennies; 20 shillings made up a pound. A pound in those days was worth about 5 dollars. Therefore a dollar would be 48 pennies, i.e. 4 shillings. Is that right? You do the math. Under a shilling was less than a quarter. Pretty cheap.
I wasn’t looking for a baby Jesus. I really wasn’t. Walking around Woolworths on a Saturday morning was quite simply one of my favorite things to do. If 9 years old seems young to you for a child to be ambling around the streets of a city’s down-town area, I can only say that everything was safer then. My mother never worried about me and there was never anything to worry about.
My favorite counter was the sweet counter, and by that, I mean the candy counter. All sorts of different kinds of candy. It was a youngster’s delight. If I list the English candy, I know my American friends won't have the slightest idea what I’m talking about. We probably had the same candy but the names were different. We had flying saucers: rice paper with sherbet in the middle which you sucked until the rice paper melted, stuck to the roof of your mouth and shot the sherbet down your throat, choking you half to death. Fun. We had shrimps: large, pink, shrimp-shaped lumps of sugary stuff that tasted a bit like bubble gum but had the texture of sweet rubber. You’d chew and chew and chew till your mouth was bright pink, like I used to imagine it would be if you’d eaten a whole, raw lobster.
It just so happened that right next to the sweet counter was the little plastic objects counter. If America these days has lots of things with “Made in China” written on them, in England in the 1960s it was “Made in Hong Kong.” Every little plastic object was made in Hong Kong. All of a sudden, I was struck magpie syndrome, my eyes were drawn to all these bright, shiny things and the one that attracted me most was a brightly colored, very shiny baby Jesus in a manger. Not just a baby Jesus, not just a manger but a two-in-one, baby Jesus in a manger.
I left the sweet counter and went to look close up. There must’ve been a hundred baby Jesus’s in the baby Jesus section, all exactly the same. I didn’t care. The more the merrier. Let everyone have a shiny, plastic, made in Hong Kong baby Jesus. "Baby Jesus's for Everyone!" I picked one up. The manger was brown and shiny; the straw was yellow and shiny; the baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes, white and shiny. The King of Kings had an actual face with an actual facial expression. It was gorgeous. Frankly, it was much nicer than our old baby Jesus which was tiny and whose face was so small there was no expression, not even any features to speak of. This was a magnificent piece of craftsmanship. Really, it was. It didn't matter that there were hundreds of them all exactly the same. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
I turned it over and looked at the price. Sixpence. Okay, here we go. There were 20 shillings in a pound; there were 12 pennies in a shilling so there were 240 pennies in a pound. Or…sixpence was half a shilling. So it was cheap. But when you’re 9, it has to be really cheap and it wasn’t cheap enough. Would my mum pay for it? Probably not – she’d say, “Make one out of a pine cone darling, I know you can.” I didn’t think I could, actually. And I didn’t have any pocket money of my own, certainly not sixpence. What was I going to do? I really needed the baby Jesus in a manger. We really needed the baby Jesus in a manger.
So…I took it. I STOLE IT! It was so easy. I waited until the lady behind the counter turned her back to me and I slipped it into the pocket of my anorak. I already wanted to put it back but it was too late, the deed was done. Feeling sick to my stomach, I slunk out of the shop. I had never stolen anything before; you can only imagine my sense of guilt. But imagine you’re catholic and you’ve stolen something; the guilt is like a tangible, living thing. And when you’re catholic and you’ve stolen the baby Jesus, the doors to hell might just as well open up and swallow you, right there, right then.
I could see it now. Headlines of the Winchester Catholic Digest: “Nine-year-old Bernadette Nason of Elm Road, Winchester, was arrested today for stealing a shiny, plastic baby Jesus in a manger (made in Hong Kong) from Woolworth’s. Peter Paul Bogan, headmaster of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic School is quoted as saying, 'She always seemed like such a nice girl. I suppose the devil works in mysterious ways too.'”
I hardly remember the walk home. I do recall it burning a hole in my pocket. It was so hot, my hand dripped with the sweat of shame. When I got home, I took the offending object out of my anorak pocket and placed it in the middle of the Nativity scene so that Mary and Joseph could once more pick up their roles as mother and father to the Son of God. But there was something I hadn’t considered, something that wouldn’t have occurred to a 9 year-old. The shiny, plastic, made-in-Hong-Kong baby Jesus in the manger was bigger than his parents. The object was huge, at least compared with the Holy Mum and Dad. Our Mary and Joseph were elegant and...well...small. My too-hot-to-handle Holy Babe was gigantic. It was like setting a tractor in a room full of Lamborghinis. Mary and Joseph would’ve required a stepladder just to gaze down on him lovingly. I was just beginning to realize the ridiculousness of the situation when my mother walked into the room.
I didn’t enjoy walking back to Woolworths. Humble pie with a big dollop of groveling apology was a hard thing for me to swallow. I hadn’t even had time to appreciate the error of my ways before being caught in the act. There were no criminal repercussions, no shame-filled stories repeated at a later date -- not until now, anyway -- and no punishment that I recall. My mother had her own methods of instilling morals. Her quiet disappointment was almost more than a person could stand. A daily glance at the empty matchbox with cotton wool and an imaginary baby (which sufficed that year for the infant in swaddling clothes) was enough to remind me that stealing the baby Jesus wasn’t the way to build a crèche; it wasn’t the way to please my mother, and it certainly wasn’t the way to get to heaven!