Every time I see a nativity scene I am reminded of a small story out of my life that remains large in my Christmas memory.
I took her to see Santa because her mother was home with a cold. She was about 4 years old.
After she had her picture taken on Santa's lap, we were driving down New Hampshire Avenue in Washington, D.C., singing Christmas carols.
In the growing darkness we saw a nativity scene high on a hill on the grounds of a parochial school.
"Can we stop?" she asked. "I've never seen one up close."
Come to think of it, neither had I in a long time.
We got out and walked up the frozen hill. The figures were large and very well-sculpted, and she was enthrallled.
"Now, what's their last name? The baby's last name is Christ, but what is Joseph and Mary's last name? I know the kings's names -- Gaspard, Balthazar and Frankenstein. We learned that at Sunday School last week."
Now what was I to tell her? And worse did I know for sure?
I told her that in those days people were called by where they were from; that we call Joseph "Joseph of Nazareth" because that's where he was from. And would you believe I did not know the last name of the kings.
She told me one of the kings brought gold, but that she wished they all had brought gold, because the family was so poor.
I confirmed her knowledge of that, and we talked abut being poor and homeless.
As we stood there with the cold night wind coming up and the setting sun casting an erie light on the gilded king's crowns, the nativity scene took on a kind of ethereal aspect and translucency.
I told her a mix of St. Luke and St. Mark's version of the Christmas story, a condensed form to go with the nativity scene, hoping it coincided with her Sunday School lessons. She was fascinated.
"This is better than Santa, I think," and she looked up at me with those big inquiring eyes.
And I told her, "Yes."
She went up to the cradle made of old boxes from the high school shop department, I guess, and looked in.
Disappointed a little, she said, "We are going to have real people in our nativity scene this Sunday."
Then like any bright 4-year-old she saw the box full of canned foods next to the nativity scene, full of donations.
"Do we have any food?" she asked.
I realized I had no food in the car, not even my own groceries, and I also realized that I didn't want to fight the traffic and go back to the store for unperishable foods.
"We could come back tomorrow and bring some cans," I told her to placate her new philanthropy.
But suddenly she had an idea, and this idea had to have been part of her family's training and her innate feeling of wanting to help.
She took off her warm fuzzy scarf.
"I've decided to give the baby Jesus my scarf, and if he were real I would put them in his cradle. But he is just a doll, so I will put them in the barrel. Maybe someone will be able to wear it. It's pretty new."
I knelt down by her and looked into her face.
"I think that would be great, but isn't that a brand new scarf your mother just bought you?" I was trying to think if her mother would be mad? Then I remembered her family's feelings, and I know her mother, my friend, will be thrilled.
"What a fine idea," I told her. "I'm sure someone will need it to keep him or her warm, and love it very much."
Forget that some naughty kids passing by might take the scarf and put it on the doll that lies in silence in the manger, or worse hang the new scarf on a nearby tree.
I put away these secular and dark thoughts while she took off the colorful scarf and said goodbye to the nativity scene. I stuck the scarf far down in the donation barrel under the bags of food.
Perhaps the best part of that Christmas was her realization that some person might need something she had. That warm scarf, the one she loved, was her ultimate gift.
When I took her home, I told her mother quickly about the scarf.
Her mother did what I had done. She hugged her and then turned to me and hugged me. Her eyes caught mine in parental understanding -- there were tears in her eyes.
I had a warm and wonderful feeling and hope that somewhere some people still dis-associate Santa and commercialism with the true story of Christmas.