Fleur and Lee are twins, who live, of course, in the lovely, tiny hamlet of Fleur de Lys in Malta, that tiny island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.
This year, Advent is a special time for them, because their Nanna Kitty let them have the set of clay figurines that used to belong to Nannu Paul when he was a kid.
But, what’s so special about a box full of tiny old statues, you may ask. Ah! But these are the ones that are traditionally used in Malta and other European countries during Christmastide, to decorate their presepju (grotto). This particular set was made from clay, and then painstakingly painted, by a famous artist, so long ago.
The twins’ dad helped them make the grotto for the models. They got an oblong of three-ply wood from the carpenter’s workshop around the corner, and set to work. Before, the grottos used to be made from sackcloth; these days, since sacks are usually made of nylon, it is easier to use thick brown paper. This is slightly moistened and crumpled, and then, placed on the plywood so that it meets one of the long sides and the two shorter ones, leaving a slight space in the front. Then, it is pressed down to form some “caverns” with the largest one in the centre. In a basin, in the time-honoured way, dad had mixed some Elmer’s glue, sand, plaster of Paris and water. They took turns at “painting” this over the construction, taking care to see that the mixture covered everything.
They took it out on the roof, but out of the direct sunlight, to dry. Some people cover the finished grotto with varnish, but Fleur said it looked more natural without, so they left it like that. Le had spent a lot of time cutting up bits of dried grass, hay, and straw for the “floors” of the caves, and he sprinkled them on when the glue mixture was still tacky.
The grotto was finally ready! It was beautiful now, go figure when the statuettes depicting the Biblical personages completed the picture.
On the Saturday before the First Sunday of Advent, the doorbell rang, and the children ran to the door. Imagine their faces when they saw it was a neighbour, asking whether they had a lemon, so that she could grate a bit of the peel into her chocolate squares! The doorbell rang again – and this time, it was the postman, delivering some books for the twins’ mother.
But the third time the doorbell rang, it really was Nanna Kitty – and in her hands she had a large mysterious box, wrapped in a tartan tablecloth. Carefully, very carefully, she walked towards the kitchen. While Mom prepared some coffee and sandwiches, Nanna undid the ribbon and spread open the tablecloth.
A smell of dry straw came out of the box, and, one by one, the twins and Nanna took out the fragile figurines.
There were shepherds and sheep, farmers and their animals, all in exquisite detail. There were angels with translucent wings. There were the Magi on their camels and their servants, and a number of extra camels too. There were men and women and children dressed in traditional Maltese clothing, a baker with a tray of bread, and a woman with a bowl of maize, and some chickens. There were the ox and the donkey, both in a kneeling position.
But best of all, inside another, smaller box, were the beautiful statues of Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus, holding His right hand up as if in blessing, and lying in a manger.
By this time, Fleur and Lee and uttered Oh! and Ah! at least a thousand times. Their fingers were itching to put the “tiny people” in the grotto, which Dad had placed in a prominent place in the family room. But first, they cleared up the loose hay, and folded the tablecloth, placing it inside the box.
The adults drank their coffee, and Mom squeezed some tangerines and oranges for Fleur and Lee.
The children each got a large bowl from the cupboard and shared the statuettes between them, so that they wouldn’t have to take several trips too and from the kitchen. But when lee put out his hands for Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, Nanna Kitty said “Not those please!” She then explained that it was a part of the observance involved placing the Magi and their entourage as far away from the grotto as possible, and then, each Sunday, moving them a little towards the main cavern. By the time Epiphany comes around, they are there, presenting their gold, frankincense and myrrh to Baby Jesus… although as we know, the story didn’t really happen that way.
What a fine morning this was. The children couldn’t wait for Sunday, to move the camel-caravan a few inches along the sideboard, towards the Crib Scene.
Nanna Kitty cried with happiness, to see the joy her gift had brought Fleur and Lee. She was glad to see that the Christmas Story was coming alive in the family room of her daughter’s family, just as it was in thousands of homes in Malta.