Every Christmas season, First Methodist sponsored a Living Nativity scene next to Main Street in front of the church. Years ago, someone had constructed a crude manger, which could be easily assembled before Christmas and disassembled after the holidays. Kids in the church would dress up in their parents’ bathrobes to portray the major characters in the nativity scene: Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, and the Shepherds.
One of the nearby farmers would donate a calf and a goat, which would be tied near the manger. People from all around Springlake would make a point of driving by and viewing our Living Nativity scene each year.
Even in Florida, December was a cold month. We scheduled the kids to take turns, rotating in and out of the scene. We set up makeshift spotlights, donated by Springlake Hardware, but they were barely strong enough to light the manger. They did nothing to keep the children warm. In between their shifts out in the manger, the kids would chug down cups of hot chocolate, so they were happy. It was a great tradition.
As the associate minister, it was one of my duties to oversee the Living Nativity each year. Late one night, three days before Christmas, I was closing up the church building when I saw some movement near the manger. At first, I thought the Kirkpatricks had left their animals behind and figured I’d have to wait until they came back for them. But then I remembered seeing them leave with both animals at around 9:30 p.m.
I walked back over to the crude structure, now dark since we had unplugged the lights at the end of the evening’s performance. I could see a figure rustling in the hay on the floor of the manger.
The figure didn’t move.
I walked closer. “Who’s there?”
No answer. I moved closer, curious but cautious.
“Who’s there?” I repeated.
“Just me, Baby Jesus,” said a male voice.
A female giggled.
“What?” I said. “Come out of there.”
Slowly, the figure unrolled, stood up and stumbled out of the manger. He was a young man with long hair down around his shoulders, a grungy beard and the scent of a pod of pigs. He wore a pullover cotton shirt and dirty, ragged blue jeans. He was skinny, and looked like he hadn’t eaten for a week. Looking down, I saw he was wearing sandals. Even in the dim light, his toenails looked filthy.
He eyed me lazily. “You’re not the fuzz, are you?”
“No. I’m a minister here,” I said. His stench was all around. I stepped back for fresh air.
“Far out.”He turned and gave a two-fingered whistle. “Missy. Come out. It’s all right.”
An equally thin, equally dirty and equally underdressed girl of no more than nineteen or twenty crawled out of the manger on her hands and knees. “Baaaaah,” she said, and giggled some more. “I’m just one of the sheep.” She stood up beside the man.
“Who are you?” I asked, shocked to see a young girl in this sort of situation.
“Man, we were passing through and we needed a place to crash,” he said. “My name’s Dave. This is my lady, Missy. We came down from Detroit. This is the warmest place around at this time of night. It’s really better than the bushes, and when the lights are on, we can almost roast marshmallows.”
“When was the last time you had a full meal?” I asked. The cold was beginning to bite through my thick jacket. I pulled it tighter around my chest.
“A full meal? God, I can’t remember,” Dave said. “We usually get some scraps here and there.” He stamped his feet as if to shake the cold.
“We had lunch at a soup kitchen in Macon last Monday,”Missy said.
“Don’t you have some relatives or someone you can visit?” I asked.
Dave shook his head. “Man, we came to Florida to get out of the cold. I didn’t know it got this cold down here.”
Missy snapped at him, “Yeah. You said it was always warm here. I believed you.”
“How could I know? I’ve never been here before. You’ve seen the postcards, Missy. Everything looked warm.”
“Take it easy,” I said.
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