I'll admit, I have few childhood memories of the nativity scene my grandparents kept on their mantel every Christmas. I recall more clearly the haunting portrait of Santa Claus hanging in the foyer and the towering Christmas tree, with its pink ribbons and bows. And, of course, the bounty of presents.
The nativity scene, delicate and out of reach, didn’t hold this little boy’s attention. Only now that it’s in my own house have I taken an interest. The stable’s wooden frame is cherry, and the slanted roof is made of small pads of straw. The whole gang is there in white ceramic: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherd, his sheep, the three wise men, their two camels, a cow, and an angel. Standard Bethlehem stuff—except that this crèche was handmade especially for my grandmother. In our order-it-on-Amazon, get-it-the-next-day, made-in-China world, my wife and I and our baby have something unique among our Christmas decorations. Our tree may be fake, but our nativity scene is real.
When she gave it to us last year, my grandmom told me how this “manger,” as she called it, came to be. Her father, my great-grandfather, was the son of Italian immigrants, born and raised in South Philadelphia. While his brothers and sisters kept their names—Attilio, Mario, Alba, Flora, Gilda, Cornelia—he, a young businessman, changed his from Tiberio Caporiccio to Thomas Cappie, a poor South Philly kid trying to sound Main Line. He married Pauline, of Austrian stock, and they soon had my grandmom, Carol, the first of their three children.
Tom Cappie must have had success with his Americanized name. When Carol was in second grade, he moved the family to a rowhouse on Linden Avenue in a working-class neighborhood in Upper Darby, just past the Philadelphia city limits. It was a big change for Carol. In the first grade, she had gone to a South Philadelphia Catholic school, St. Aloysius, run by German nuns. She remembers not liking it. But in Upper Darby, she attended St. Laurence, which she much preferred. The Cappies still traveled into the city on Sundays to go to church, sometimes at the Italian parish of Tom’s family and sometimes at the German one of Pauline’s. Carol learned to make pasta from her Italian grandmother on those weekend visits. When a friend’s dog gave birth to puppies, the Linden Avenue Cappies took one of them and named her Cookie.
Carol was 17 when she and her family moved again, to a larger house on Mason Avenue, in the middle-class suburb of Drexel Hill. By then, my grandmom was attending the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur, a girls’ school in nearby Villanova. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn filmed scenes for The Philadelphia Story at the school. In the backyard on Mason Avenue was a cherry tree, and when Cookie the dog died, they buried her under it.
It was some years later that Tom used branches from the cherry tree to fashion miniature beams for the stables in two manger scenes he made, one for him and Pauline and one for Carol, who by this time was 25 and had her own family. Carol and her husband and their three kids (including my mom) had just moved to Atlanta, part of the first wave of midcentury northeastern transplants to the emerging Sun Belt. The crèche was a piece of Philadelphia for Carol to take with her. It was also a piece of her father, whom she adored more than just about anyone. She herself took a ceramics class and made the figurines, completing her scene.
Grandmom’s crèche appeared at every Christmas for nearly 50 years, long after her own kids had left home. When Tom died young, at 56, in his sleep, I think her heart broke. After that, putting the nativity scene out each December was like having her father back.
Nobody told me any of this when I was growing up. But when my wife and I were given the crèche, I suddenly was interested. The years had begun to tell. The bark on the cherry beams had chipped away in places. The angel is missing a wing and Joseph a staff. But my grandmom enlisted her son-in-law, my dad, to renovate the stable before they surprised us with it. He reinforced the straw roof with plywood and added a new base and back panel. That makes three generations of our family who have helped build this heirloom. You can’t order that online.
Now it’s our son’s first Christmas, and for the first time the crèche is ours. I thought for a while about where to place it. We don’t have a fireplace and mantel, but there was an empty space on top of our tall bookcase in the living room. The scene fits there perfectly, and I like the way it catches the light.