The Value of a Child-Friendly Nativity Set

Mary and the angel lost their heads this week at our house.  Baby Jesus?  He’s MIA.   It’s ok, though, we have a spare Jesus at ready.

At our house, the nativity set is hands-on.  We get out the tacky glue, and Mary and the angel get back to the action, ready for small hands.  We like lots of traffic around the manger.

In many people’s homes, nativity sets are ornately beautiful and fragile, set up on display as a look-but-don’t-touch Christmas decoration.  I appreciate those beautiful sets; there is a certain amount of reverence inherent in beautiful things.  Some day I’d love to have a set like that.  But right now, that’s just not the way we live.

baby jesus

We are a household with four young kids. I don’t really have a place to set up a fragile nativity set without fear, and I don’t want to anyway.

Our little wooden stable and nativity set currently reside in the dining room on top of my grandma’s sewing machine table.  At children’s eye level.  To make it accessible to even our littlest one, I put the step stool right next to the nativity set.

One of the sheep in our nativity is a three-time amputee.  He now spends his time laying down.  We have a wiseman that lost his legs, another is missing part of his crown.  You get the picture.

We have a backup nativity set, though, so we can create a full “cast” by combining the two sets.

The nativity set figurines sit next to our Little Golden Book called The Christmas Story, a simple version of the Bible story with beautiful traditional artwork.  The nativity set and the story go hand in hand, and we can grab the book and read it whenever the mood strikes.

I give my cousin, Annie, the credit for this child-friendly arrangement.  A few years ago, I spotted a picture on her facebook page: an adorable wooden, hand-painted child’s nativity set, rearranged in some sort of humorous configuration by her young son.  This struck a chord with me, and thus began a quest for a nativity set for our children.

While I loved my cousin’s set, the hefty price tag for that nativity didn’t sound feasible for me.  I’m too busy (or really, just too lazy) to keep track of expensive little figurines that our dog might chew up.

I then looked at the nativity set made by Little People.  While I love those little figures as toys, I didn’t want them as a nativity set because they really just look like another toy.  I wanted the nativity figures to look more realistic, and somehow different from “just another toy.”  Not finding what I wanted in any stores, I hunted around on the internet and almost bought a set there.

Inspiration struck, though, and I headed to the thrift store.

Eureka!  I found a classic wooden stable, complete with a working(!) light.  Conveniently attached was a plastic nativity set with traditional-looking figures, super-glued in place.  I spotted and then snatched up another nativity set made of resin for a few bucks more.

Those figurines seemed like just the ones: worn just enough to not worry about future nicks, and very similar to the set from my childhood.  For less than fifteen dollars, I now possess a lighted wooden stable and two nativity sets, one plastic and one resin.

Wanting an interactive nativity set experience for my kids, I pried off the plastic figurines that came super-glued to the stable.  One king refused to budge, as did all three sheep, which tend to be stubborn animals.

It’s not quite perfect, but it’s not meant to be, which actually makes it perfect.  From a distance, the set looks nice, and up close, the apparent wear and tear makes our nativity fuss-free for our kids.

So why do I intentionally allow my children to potentially damage these semi-sacred objects?

We all know that children benefit from hands-on learning.  Both educators and parents alike know that children learn by seeing, touching, and doing.  So often, though, when it comes to “the reason for the season,” people set up nativity sets that are off-limits to children.  To me, that looks like a missed opportunity for learning.

Child-friendly nativity sets provide the visual and tactile opportunity for kids to engage with the Christmas story.  Learning about something that happened so long ago is an abstract concept, but seeing, touching, and manipulating the characters in the story helps kids to sort it all out and create understanding.  The teacher in me likes that.

And the kid in me says it’s just plain fun.

When I took out our nativity set and stable for the season, I never actually pointed it out to our kids.  I just set it up, turned on the stable light (“open for business”), and waited.

A few hours later, I noticed our 19-month-old daughter sitting on the step stool, playing with the figures.  I overheard her little monologue: “Mama, baby.” “Dada!” Then the holy family climbed the roof of the stable, “Stays (stairs)…up, up, up!”  Soon the wisemen took turns riding on the cow, “Weee!!”

Perched on a step stool, our baby plays with our child-friendly nativity set.

Perched on a step stool, our baby plays with our child-friendly nativity set.

As she played, I told her the names of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus.  That’s enough for her for now.

Our kids aren’t always reverent with the figurines.  I already mentioned the missing heads.  Sometimes the donkey fights with the cow, and sometimes the figures are stacked in pig pile fashion.  Kids are kids, after all.

However, our 19-month-old often carries baby Jesus around the house saying, “Aww, baby,” and lovingly kisses him and gently covers him up with tiny blankets.

My three-year-old son, also a baby lover, has the same reaction.  When he plays with the nativity set, he always makes sure that baby Jesus has his mom and dad close at hand.  And after seeing and playing with the set at home, he can easily name the “characters” in the story when he sees them in other places, like church or TV.

One night as I read The Christmas Story book to our kids, my six-year-old daughter jumped up off the couch and grabbed the nativity figures.  Giggling and using exaggerated gestures for comedic effect, she made the figures act out the play as I read the book.  Afterward she took an especially grand bow, and we clapped.

I think the person who said “let the little children come to me” would approve.

And as for Mary and the angel, they might lose their heads again before Christmas, but hey, don’t we all sometimes?


12 Things I’m Thankful for During a Day in 2012

By the time most people read this, the turkey will be picked over and someone will already be trampled from a Black Friday shopping rush. As I write this, though, it’s just a quiet Monday morning before Thanksgiving. We’re contentedly hanging out at Grandma’s house, in Broadview, Montana. Yep, over the Missouri River and across the prairie, to Grandmother’s house we go. A few days after our all-night driving trek, we’re still wiped out, but very happy to be here.

While 1,000 miles between our families is a big odyssey with four kids in tow, what I love is that no matter if we are heading east to Minnesota or west to Montana, it feels like we are going home. Family is home. We cheer when we finally hit Montana on the way west, and we cheer when we finally hit Minnesota on the drive back east.

To be completely honest, though, I have absolutely no desire to sit in front of the laptop and write this morning. We’ve been waiting for months to see our family here in Montana, and all I want to do is just hang out and play. It’s been six busy months since we last visited family in Montana, several of us moved into different homes during that time, and a baby was born. But right now we are in the midst of that great, but all too short, time of getting to see everyone in person again.

After the overnight drive I’m still groggy and a little rough around the edges, but I’m happy to be here for Thanksgiving, the holiday focused on gratitude. I could fill a book with the many people and things that I’m grateful for, but right now, I’m just thinking of today. So as I’m sitting here, I’m counting my blessings for what I have, this very day.

I’m Thankful For:

1. Church Bursting with Kids–The Broadview Lutheran Church, with a usual Sunday congregation of 5-8 people, swelled with our extended family. We had ten young Mosdal cousins hanging out there together, including our four kids. A zoo of children is a happy sight in my world.

2. A New Baby–Four months after she was born, I finally saw my new niece for the first time. The newest little cousin in the family has an amazing shock of thick reddish brown hair, sweet blue eyes, and perfect creamy white skin. I got to hold her and snuggle with her long enough to soak in some of that baby goodness, and my kids, her cousins, held her and proudly proclaimed “she’s so cute.” We also watched her little fingers grab for the homemade cinnamon rolls at church. Obviously, she’s got good taste.

3. Ice Cream with Great-Grandparents–Noticeably absent on Sunday at church were two long-time church goers: my husband’s grandparents, Grace and Thelmer. Three months ago, they moved off the farm and into assisted living. On Sunday afternoon we brought our kids to the ice cream social where they now live. Grace and Thelmer enjoyed seeing four kids devouring ice cream, and they beamed with pride as other people walked by and asked about the kids. We enjoyed seeing that they now live in a nice little apartment and have three meals a day (plus cookie time snacks) provided. It was good for all of us.

4. Early Coffee With In-laws. Our kids are still on Minnesota time, despite losing all sorts of sleep on the drive. The kids are up and at ’em around five AM, even though they go to bed late the night before. It’s a busy, bustling breakfast time with hungry, chattering squirrels waiting for food, but eating breakfast with Grandma and Grandpa just makes it all feel festive, even if we are all tired. And the coffee and pancakes? Superb.

Sleepy eyes peek into the bowl to watch Grandma mixing waffles early in the morning.

Sleepy eyes peek into the bowl to watch Grandma mixing waffles early in the morning.

5. Napping Baby–After several long days, our 19 mo. old finally crashed for a real nap this morning. Seeing her peacefully recharging her batteries makes me feel more rested, even if I don’t get a nap myself.

6. Craft time with Grandma–It’s a simple thing, but our kids hanging out at the kitchen table putting together craft foam snowmen with Grandma is a lot of fun. We all just need time together.

7. Cashews, not a Hernia–Our three-year-old’s love affair with cashews drove him to bring his little snack bowl over three times to get a pile of cashews from me. At the time he was eating, I was distracted by other things, and it didn’t dawn on me that the quantity he ate was a fair bit beyond normal preschool cashew capacity. Later on, tummy trouble made that fact fairly obvious. In the midst of him crying that his tummy hurt, I couldn’t help but be thankful that this stomach pain was only from too much of a good thing. The last time he cried about his tummy, he needed emergency hernia surgery. I’ll take the cashews. In fact, I’ll probably just take the cashews away.

8. Uncles on Horses–In the afternoon, I glanced out the front door and to my amazement, Jarred’s brother was outside on horseback, with his second horse following on a rope. He’d ridden into town from their place out in the country, and he gave our kids their very first horse ride. Seeing our animal-loving 19 mo. old’s eyes light up at seeing the horses, and then happily take a little ride with her uncle was pretty priceless.

9. Friends Across the Street–My six-year-old daughter headed kitty-corner across the street from grandma’s house this afternoon to her friend’s house. The two little girls wrote letters back and forth from MN and MT over the summer, and today they played together in person once again.

10. Run, Turkey, Run–Today I discovered a Thanksgiving run in Billings, MT. My new Turkey Day plan is to take the short drive to Billings on Thanksgiving morning, run a 5k among silly people in turkey costumes, drink my free pint of ale post-race (you know, replenish any calories burned), and be back to Broadview with plenty of time to consume the required gigantic Thanksgiving meal. Runners are often a crazy, quirky lot, and runners in turkey gear just sounds too good to miss. Best of all, the run benefits the local food bank. It’s a win/win for everyone.

11. Van-Free for 36 Hours. After spending long, grinding hours in the van during the last few days, we parked the van and gave it a much needed rest. I informed my kids that we were not leaving Grandma’s house today, and there would be no driving. At all. Staying put never felt so good.

12. Bedtime. After baths, pajamas gymnastics, several repeat offenders on bathroom and drink requests, all the kids finally got in bed. Two big kids finally fell asleep on their living room couch “beds,” two little ones fall asleep on their beds in the guest room, and the house bursting with people is suddenly fairly quiet. And that, my friends, is cause for thanks-giving.

Wishing all of you a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Growing Up with My Favorite Veterans

Growing up, military and patriotism were big parts of my life because of my siblings.

While my kids already ask about Santa’s arrival, on this chilly November day just after the elections, a different holiday is on my mind: Veterans Day.

I grew up in a big family with five older siblings in the military, so patriotism started at an early age. When I was just a kindergartner, I visited the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO for the first time. My brother, David, and sister, Sue, both attended the Air Force Academy at that time. Only five-years-old, my memories of the whole trip are hazy, but I do clearly remember sitting in a large auditorium waiting to see my brother, David, shortly after we arrived.

Seeing him in a uniform for the first time, I was a bit awestruck, intimidated, and completely proud. He suddenly seemed much older to me than the brother that I used to watch run down the driveway to the school bus. I remember not being sure if it was ok to hug him while he was in a uniform. At five, I understood just enough to know about some formalities surrounding military protocol, and I definitely didn’t want to get in trouble with the Air Force.


Displaying our flag on a cloudy November day to honor the Veterans.

I also remember during that trip listening to a Cadet Choir performance, and hearing them sing “America” by Neil Diamond: “Got a dream to take them there, they’re coming to America.” I was pretty little, but I remember totally loving that song. My memory might be incorrect, but I recall standing in the back of the auditorium, probably after a bathroom trip, staring at gigantic paintings of important past Air Force generals, and hearing that song. The Cadet Choir was amazing, and hearing the words of dreams, liberty, and the promise of America, sung by Air Force cadets in their uniforms made my five-year-old heart swell with patriotism and pride for my brother and sister that were in the Air Force Academy.

My family made several trips to the Air Force Academy while I was in elementary school. I watched my sister, Sue (who is “Sues” to our family) graduate. At the end of the ceremony, the cadets throw their hats up in the air, and it’s customary for little kids to go down to the field to catch the hats and keep one as a souvenir. Sues, always planning ahead, snagged an extra hat saving us from fighting the other kids. I’m guessing we were one of the few kids around that had genuine Air Force cadet hats in our dress up box.

Two years after seeing Sues graduate, we headed back to see my brother, David, graduate. I soaked up all of it. I remember being impressed by cadets parachuting out of a plane and landing on the field in front of us, and felt extreme awe as an SR-71 plane flew low and slow over our heads. My uncle, Frank, David’s godfather, went along on the trip. He bought the book Into the Mouth of the Cat while he was at the Academy, about Lance Sijan, an Air Force hero from the Vietnam War.

After he finished the book, I picked it up and started to read it on the long ride back from Colorado to Minnesota. As a third grader, the book was a bit too challenging for me to read, but it hooked me on loving to read books about POWs’ experiences. I’m continually impressed by soldiers’ tales of survival and perseverance in extreme adversity.

A few years later during the Gulf War, my sister, Sues, served there in the Air Force. My sister, Karen, was also in the Gulf War serving in the Army, as was her husband, Gene. As a 7th grader at the time, I don’t know if I fully grasped the magnitude of the situation, but I certainly recall the flood of support for all the troops: care packages abounded, letters flooded to soldiers from elementary kids, and everyone wore ribbons in support. At our house, we had two yellow ribbons for my sisters tied around our birch trees. Those ribbons aged over the winter, but remained there until my sisters came home.

I knew that many Vietnam soldiers returned home to less than a hero’s welcome, and to me it felt like the nation’s remorse over not supporting Vietnam soldiers turned into an overwhelming flood of support and national pride for the Gulf War troops. And as a 12-year-old, I have to say I felt kind of cool to have two sisters serving in the Gulf War.

One of my proudest, most heart-swelling moments to be an American and have family in the military happened in early spring of 1991, just after the Gulf War ended. On that sunny spring day, I stood in a hangar at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma waiting for my Air Force navigator sister, Sues, to come home from the war.

I remember sitting on bleachers, waiting for her plane to come in. Red, white and blue banners adorned the industrial-looking hangar, and patriotic music played. A plane full of returning troops landed before hers, and I watched families and loved ones reunite, saw tight hugs being exchanged, along with smiles and tears.

The song “God Bless the USA” comes to mind with this memory, “And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” I don’t know if I heard that song that day, or if that song just brings that scene to mind, but that song is almost always associated with my memory of that day.

As I watched the families reuniting, waiting for my sister’s plane to come in, I felt the swell of emotion all around. I remember sitting there “itching” my eyes, hoping that nobody would notice that my 7th grader self had tears in my eyes about it all.

Finally, my sister’s plane landed. She had no idea that we’d driven down from Minnesota to Oklahoma that day for her homecoming. We held up our “Welcome home, Sues” and “MN Welcomes Sues” signs, figuring she’d certainly realize it was us, since there probably weren’t any other Minnesotans down in Oklahoma waiting for their “Sues.”

I saw my sister walk out of the plane and into the sunshine, wearing her olive drab flight suit. Even from a distance, I recognized her smile and walk. It seems like someone else in her crew first noticed us and pointed out our signs to her, since she hadn’t been expecting anyone there to meet her.

I don’t remember the details of all the rest, but I know it involved plenty of hugs, smiles, and laughter. It was a great homecoming.

Growing up, military and patriotism were big parts of my life because of my siblings. With my brother John in the Navy, and Sues and David in the Air Force while I was little, I always had ready made pen pals. Later, Karen and Mike both served in the Army. Postcards and letters in the mail from far off places were a pretty common event, as was eagerly counting days on the calendar waiting for one of my brothers or sisters to come home to visit.

As a kid, I felt a great pride about my siblings and extended family in the military. I still do. But as an adult, my perspective has broadened. It’s amazing to me to realize that I’m now older than my sisters were during the time of the Gulf War. As a mother, I look at many enlisted soldiers that recently served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I see kids just out of high school football and volleyball uniforms. I see kids that could be my own in not too many years. And as a mother, I see mothers and fathers in uniform, hugging their little kids goodbye for months at a time, and my heart goes out to them. My own brother-in-law has served four war tours in the last ten years with a young family at home. I know it takes a toll on everyone involved.

I won’t ever know what it’s like to be in a war. For every soldier, there are a thousand stories, most of which are never heard by families back home. I do know that I’m so proud of the military veterans in my family, and thankful for all the countless veterans in our nation. Thank you for serving our country.