For years my parents had been christening our one-acre front lawn with a set of those plastic Nativity figurines frequently seen huddled together during the holiday season. When I was younger, the novelty of having a complete set—two lambs and a camel along with the full cast of characters including a shepherd—was enough to keep me feeling special. As I got older I comforted myself that, because ours were vintage, displayed in a tasteful hay bale barn, and illuminated from above with a floodlight rather than garishly from within, my family had narrowly escaped being hopelessly tacky; we instead rested firmly in the camp of whimsical nostalgia. Regardless of the taste level, the annual appearance of the gang on the front lawn was something that provided a sense of continuity and, no matter the chaos going on inside, a sense that a certain Christmas serenity still reigned.
I must have been photographing this particular moment, as only mom, dad, Katie, Louise and Pete are pictured.
Louise with vintage (read–really old and chipped) Mary and Jesus.
It was my senior year of college that everything changed. There were only a few days left of the term, and I slogged through finals with the promise that a comfortable, familiar Christmas on County A awaited me in a few short days. Mom and I were wrapping up our once-weekly call that Sunday night when she offhandedly mentioned,
“Oh, and the Manger Scene burned down the other night.”
Coming as it did, across the phone line to my door room a couple hours’ drive away, my mother’s comment seemed even more incongruous. True, we certainly did edit our traditional Sunday evening calls down to a skeletal minimum. On my part, this was to spare her the details of the questionable choices that I was making during my last year of undergrad—a decision that she was more than happy to go along with. This approach formed the crux of her parenting after age 12: don’t ask any questions that you don’t want to know the answer to. On her part, the lack of foreshadowing and leaving out of key details was more routine. She never has been very good at foreshadowing things. Dropped in your lap like an unexpected, squirming baby, her pronouncements were often without context and, similarly, without clear instructions on where to proceed next. Luckily, it took very little to get her going, relating the story that now exists as a legend.
Apparently they’d gotten the manger scene set up a few days before. It was a typical weekday night, and they were settled down in the family room for the evening. A bright floodlight swept across the back of the family room as a sheriff’s vehicle swung into the gravel driveway. They immediately assumed that this had something to do with the family’s newest driver, my sister Louise, who had already had one hit and run incident to her credit since getting her license in September. (Fear not, the victim was the bumper of another car in the parking lot at dance). They hustled to the kitchen door and stepped into the crisp, semi darkness of a winter night on the Wisconsin prairie. The only light came from the manger scene, the dusk to dawn light having been ritually unscrewed to provide center-stage billing to the front lawn tableau. The light seemed a bit brighter than usual however. And and it was throwing off heat. And crackling.
The nativity scene was completely engulfed in flames
The sheriff’s deputy exited his vehicle, glancing perplexedly from the Biblical inferno to my dad in his then-uniform grey hooded Janesville Fire Department sweatshirt. Oh, have I forgotten to mention that he was the Janesville Fire Marshal at the time? Must have slipped my mind. The young deputy glanced nervously between the two and asked the only logical question:
“Sir, are you aware that you Christmas scene is on fire?”
An interesting question. Perhaps my parents just were tired of that particular decoration and couldn’t see taking a trip to the dump. Trash burning was not uncommon in the township, and who needs a burn barrel when you have a snow-covered front lawn as a fire ring?
His mind already reeling ahead to the implications of this very public display of the fire dangers inherent in Christmas light displays, dad wearily asked while rubbing at his furrowed brow, “Sheesh, please tell me that this hasn’t been called in.” He was answered by the crackle of the deputy’s radio coming to life. Oh, it had been called in. And heavily discussed by all on duty firefighters that evening. Dad told the deputy that he had things under control, no a hose truck wasn’t needed, and PLEASE don’t say any more than you need to about this on the radio.
As the deputy pulled away into the quiet night, dad wearily pulled on his barn boots and walked over to the fire. He unplugged what proved to the be the inciting culprit: a 50+ year old extension cord festooned at various points along its length with electrical tape. Using a piece of scrap lumber he knocked the haybales apart, attempting to dissipate the the now roaring blaze. Haybales really can go to town, once they get started. They burned for several hours and smoldered into the night, long after my parents went to bed. In the morning all that remained was a charred circle in the center of the lawn, melted plastic lumps marking the former positions of the holy family and their retinue. Unfortunately it didn’t snow again for several weeks. County A is a fairly heavily traveled road, and between the the dispatch radio and the road’s usual traffic, word of the incident spread quickly. I think that dad took the ribbing in stride, and several poems commemorating the incident were delivered to the house, all set to familiar Christmas tunes. The best was clearly “A Flame In a Manger.”
I didn’t quite believe my mother until I saw the evidence for myself. And for those of you who have heard the story before, perhaps you didn’t believe it either. But while dad put out the flames, mom had the foresight to document the proceedings for posterity. Thanks mom!
The next Christmas, mom went out and got a new set of figures at the Farm and Fleet, but things were never really the same. The manger scene’s magical allure was diminished somehow. One good thing, though, they didn’t need to purchase new wise men. You see, the year of fire brother Patrick–he would have been around 8 at the time– had added some theatrical flair to the proceedings and was having the magi approach from the east, set to arrive on Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas. Every morning he trudged across the acre-wide lawn in his boots and hauled the three statues several feet closer to the scene. At the time of the fire, they were still far enough to the east to have been saved. It took a couple of days for him to give up on the project, and for awhile the three plastic wise men were seen to be slowly approaching the burned patch of lawn little by little, inching their way through the blowing prairie winds toward the greasy plastic disc on the lawn of my childhood home.