December 18, 2009
There are two things I still have to dig out in order to observe Christmas properly. One is the heirloom manger figures; the other is the DVD of the “Dragnet” episode in which the statue of the infant Jesus is stolen from a creche in a Los Angeles mission church. That’s the original 1953 version with Ben Alexander playing Frank Smith.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, LA detectives Joe Friday (Jack Webb) and Frank Smith are called to a church in a Latino neighborhood by Father Rojas because the statue has gone missing as the Christmas morning Masses are approaching. The poker-faced cops mechanically set about looking for the culprit, but have to return to the church on Christmas Eve to tell the priest that they have come up dry. While they’re standing with him near the sanctuary, they hear a racket coming from the direction of the front doors, and a little boy, Paco Mendoza, comes up the center aisle pulling the statue in a wagon. When the priest questions him in Spanish, the boy explains that he had promised that if he got a wagon for Christmas, Jesus would get the first ride. Frank Smith wonders aloud that the boy has the wagon already, before Christmas arrives. In one of the great exchanges in television history, the priest explains that the wagon didn’t come from the usual source; it was one of the toys refurbished by members of the fire department. “Paco’s family,” he tells the detectives, “they’re poor.” To which Friday, glancing at the Christ child back in its crib, says in his monotone: “Are they, Father?”
Our manger scene consists of white plaster figures, made in France, that belonged to my mother. She told me that she received the set from a Syrian priest when she was a child, and it wasn’t new then. Most of the figures have been broken and repaired one or more times, and one of the animals mysteriously disappeared about ten years ago. The set has a classic look to it, so we wouldn’t consider replacing it. It’s a few cuts above those translucent, illuminated plastic ones that have appeared on various lawns in the past week or so.
The tradition of assembling a manger scene — living or otherwise — originated in the 13th century with Francis of Assisi. The “Dragnet” crowd apparently wasn’t familiar with the tradition in which the image of the child is not placed in the manger until Christmas Eve, in time for the midnight Mass. A church like the one depicted in that episode would almost certainly have adhered to that custom. I have noticed that the child hasn’t been placed even in many of the lawn scenes that are out there now.
The child, of course, is the centerpiece of the feast, the vulnerable, innocent child who is both God and man in the belief of hundreds of millions of Christians. Why would God appear in human form — and as a newborn child? There is a learned and lovely reflection on this question on the blog “This Very Life,” written by Tania Mann in Rome. Those who are going to celebrate this holy day — and are very busy getting ready for whatever it implies for them — might want to spend a few minutes contemplating the reason for it all. If so, click HERE.