We set up a nativity in our living room every Christmas. It’s a peaceful, bucolic scene. Of course, it came in a kit; made from unbreakable Polymer, a kind of plastic that isn’t really plastic.

The kit included Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, two shepherds, a cow, donkey, and two sheep. My daughter named the cow Bessie; my son named the donkey Kong; the sheep are Mo and Curly. I named them. I’m not sure why we never got around to naming the shepherds.

Several days after setting up the nativity one Christmas, I noticed that Baby Jesus was MIA. We had lost Baby Jesus! Or, my son, Christopher, then three, had swallowed him. I did my best to keep my worries from my wife while I turned the house upside down, looking for Baby Jesus, becoming more and more certain as I moved every piece of furniture I thought he might have fallen behind, that Christopher had indeed swallowed him. Finally, convinced that it was time to take Christopher to the emergency room, I blurted out.

“Our son has swallowed Baby Jesus!”

“What?” Lynn, who was wrapping presents at the time, dropped the box she had been working on. It hit the floor with a decided tinkle. Instead of running to Christopher’s room, as I expected, she ran into the kitchen, opened the pantry, and took Baby Jesus down from where he had been lying on the oatmeal box on the top shelf. “Here he is, right here,” she said, relief in her voice.

“What’s Baby Jesus doing in the pantry?” I demanded, somehow finding myself incensed, now that I knew we weren’t going to have to take Christopher to the emergency room and tell them he’d swallowed Baby Jesus. I learned that you didn’t put Jesus in the crčche until Christmas day. That was the first I heard of that tradition as well as the first time I heard the word crčche. Of course, being born in a stable doesn’t sound appealing either, cattle lowing not withstanding. And, I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what lowing was either.

Somewhere along the line, since that traumatic day, our nativity scene has gotten out of hand. It probably started that time we were driving through Fredericksburg and the Christmas Store was going out of business, something we discovered they did annually on the third week of February every year. They had kings on sale: three for the price of one — with camel and camel saddle. From that moment on, our stable scene grew, sort of like the balance on a credit card grows, a little here, a little there. You don’t notice anything, until one day you need another credit card to pay off that one — or another table for the one that’s gotten too small to hold everything. At first, we needed villagers to balance out the kings. Villagers needed a village. There was this cute inn on eBay. Then we needed rocks and trees and grass so it wouldn’t look like the whole thing was on a table top, even though it was.

Late every Christmas Eve, after everyone is tucked safely away in their beds, I wander around the house, past the Christmas tree, and end up in front of the nativity scene and its Italian, medieval version of the First Christmas. There’s this whole Botticelli ambiance that makes you feel peaceful, even though you know that’s not what the first Christmas looked like.

Archeologists tell us that an inn in the Middle East at the time of the Roman Empire was usually nothing more than an open field, sometimes with a few permanent buildings, sometimes just tents. There would be a sturdy wall around the whole thing. The caravans and merchants would drive their camels, mules, horses, and goats into the middle, where they’d join other camels, mules, horses, and goats. It was a noisy, sprawling, dusty place where weary travelers came together more for protection from bandits than for any hospitality it might offer. This was not the place you wanted to take your pregnant wife. In fact, if I were Joseph looking over that scene, I might very well prefer a stable.

We’re not really sure what that particular stable was like; possibly a small cave, either natural, or carved into a cliff face away from the main encampment. Not any cleaner, but certainly quieter, perhaps even peaceful.

I reflect on that scene as I go to the pantry and take Baby Jesus off the top shelf and put him in the manger. A stable might just be a more fitting place for Christ’s birth than that inn.