My deeply devout French- Italian Catholic Grandmother held my hand as we walked into the village at dusk. We were going to see the crèche. I recall feeling very excited. I loved the story that she had just told me about Mary birthing Jesus in a manger surrounded by animals and doves while Joseph looked on.
I was eight years old. Until this Christmas I had never spent any time with my paternal grandmother. This year things were different. My parents were in Europe for a year and I had also been separated from my little brother who was staying with my maternal grandparents while I attended school in the east. My grandparents had sent me back to stay with my great aunts because they didn’t want me to go to Catholic school in California. I missed my little brother so much it hurt. My grandmother’s sisters were kind to me, but I was in a state of perpetual longing… How I ended up staying with this unknown grandmother remains a mystery to this day.
It was almost dark when we reached the crèche. I remember nothing beyond being cast into the middle of a living myth. Light seemed to be coming from every direction inside the thatched wooden structure. Mary was cloaked in blue and there was a baby in the straw manger that looked like a doll. Everything else was moving! Joseph held a long wooden staff, and three strange men were coming and going from the manger offering gifts to the baby; they were dressed in extraordinary clothing. Lots of gold. But I was glued to Mary who kept watch over her baby. Beautiful songs floated around us in the air. I can still hear the chords of Silent Night. I gazed up at the sky at some point. Brilliant stars seemed to be falling all around me. Where was the luminous one my grandmother said was in the sky this night? Was that when I saw the animals? Donkeys, cows and sheep, dogs, doves, bears – there were so many – animals of all kinds. I couldn’t name them all! They kept circling around the crèche. Oh, the animals were keeping the family safe from harm! Suddenly, I too felt safe, wrapped in Mary’s cloak, embraced by this Mother of All…loved and protected by the animals.
Afterwards, walking home with my grandmother, I wondered about why she hadn’t told me about the animals. And where was the star? I was too shy to ask.
Later, I watched my grandmother unwind her beautiful long silver hair. Did she let me brush it? She wore it like a crown during the day. My sweet little grandmother helped me change into my nightgown; that night I was going to sleep in her bed. When she tucked me in my grandmother told me that Mary was going to watch over me all night long. And then, Mary appeared for a second time as my grandmother lit a small light with a figure that glowed pale blue… I remember the deep comfort I experienced knowing that She was in the room with me, as I fell sound asleep.
Postscript: This is the only memory I have of being with my paternal grandmother during my childhood, except for occasional family holidays when she was always busy caring for masses of relatives. The fact that this experience has stayed with me my entire life suggests its importance. I may have been physically separated from this grandmother because of family conflict but she was the one who made Mary real to me. Until that Christmas I had only experienced this ‘Mother of god’ in a convent that I snuck into almost every day when I walked home from school. In that convent I met Mary surrounded by roses and doves in a beautiful walled garden. The nuns first told me the story of Jesus’s birth. I kept these visits a secret although I was only in kindergarten when I began going to the convent garden.
In retrospect I see that I received a tremendous gift from my very devout grandmother the one time I spent with her. Mary lived, and lives still. My relationship with her has sustained me over a lifetime sometimes in the guise of other goddesses. I expect to meet her at the threshold of my death along with the animals and trees I love so much.
I have no explanation for seeing so many animals that night at the crèche, but again, in retrospect it is clear that I had a powerful spiritual experience that included animals in a very important way. The animals created the circle of protection not just for the Christian story, but for me. Then and now. Animals taught me how to love the earth and then my body; immanence is as sacred as transcendence. We need both. It’s probably no surprise to the reader that I have lived with, and loved animals all my life, or that I need them more than they will ever need me.
The war between my parents over Catholics in general must have been won by my mother early on. How else would a five year old know that she could never reveal the secret garden, the place where Mary lived?
Unfortunately, family stories repeat for good or ill and I have lived through another generation of forced family separation and loss.
Just recently I have been reunited with my cousin, my dad’s nephew, a joy I never expected to experience. A whole new story is writing itself into our lives.
BIO Sara is a naturalist, ethologist ( a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Maine.
11 thoughts on “A Christmas Story by Sara Wright”
Sara, what a sweet story. Where were you when you visited the creche with your grandmother? In the U.S.? Somewhere in Europe? I’m glad you saw all the animals at the creche. And Mary, mother of all. Lovely!
I have loving memories of my maternal grandparents in St. Louis, but my mother didn’t like her mother-in-law, so my brother and I almost never saw our paternal grandmother, who also lived in St. Louis. But all three of our grandparents came to dinner every Christmas Eve. After dinner, and after my brother and I washed the dishes, I played Christmas carols on the piano and my brother sang. After that, we opened our presents. That’s my (altogether Protestant) Christmas memory. Bright blessings to us all for our beautiful, loving memories of holidays with our grandparents and other relatives and friends.
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my paternal grandmother lived in NY….
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What a beautiful story, Sara. Thank you for sharing it. Growing up Catholic, surprisingly I never had much of a personal relationship with Mary. It was only after I became a Pagan and realized she was another form of the Mother goddess that I came to appreciate Her.
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Interesting, Mary in reverse – we all seem to get her one way or the other – I love it that our goddesses shapeshifter into one another!
This is such a lovely memory told in such a loving and insightful way! One of my grandmothers gave me my first “goddess” statue, though I didn’t think of it that way at the time. While we were on a trip to Italy when I was about 10, my grandmother bought both my sister and me busts of Mary which we both still have. I hadn’t known much about Mary except for the Christmas story until then, but that statue sparked my interest in her, which I think probably paved the way for other explorations of female divinity later in my life.
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Interesting how Mary appeared in your life…. Recently I was reading that in non canonized versions she herself was divine – why of course she was!
Hi Sarah. I was a farmer for forty years and during that time grew to have hatred for crows and foxes. The crow picked the eyes out of sick sheep and lambs and the fox hilled many small defenseless animals and small lambs. He would eat the tongue out of sheep which could not get up.
Having been retired for many years due to falling from a shed roof during construction and moving to town and starting to write books, the crow hatred still stuck.
We have now been adopted by someone’s pet crow, Claude I have called him. Every morning he crows loudly for his feed of cheese from my fingers. I have worked out what an intelligent bird they are. Good on you Claude
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Isn’t this the irony – and it’s funny how animals have two aspects – one more positive than the other! Right now it’s gray squirrels that are on my list – they are greedy thugs – eat anything in sight – I can’t wait for a transformation like the one you had!
My two Siamese cats mean the world to me. They are two people who share my and my husband’s lives, not pets. Our routines are structured round them because as anyone who knows them will attest, Siamese are very vocal! I cannot imagine life without animals in it and I don’t want to.
Your encounters with Mary are so real and sweet in the true sense of the word – not saccharine, but pure and meaningful.
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I don’t want to imagine my life without animals either! As for Mary, well She’s just real.