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Away in a Manger, No Room for the… Toys

Decades ago, my wife, daughter and I visited a Cincinnati art museum with a special European Holiday exhibit. A prominent display was an Italian nativity scene that depicted not only the central scene of the birth of Jesus in a stable but also included most of Bethlehem. It was the size of a room at about 10 feet by 20 feet. They cleverly cheated the perspective by starting with figures at the front at 1/12th scale and then shrinking the scale as it went back to about 1/25th scale. The detail was amazing.

As part of the history of the display, it mentioned that in Germany it was traditional to set up the display and move Mary, Joseph and the donkey closer to town each day. Only on Christmas morning would the baby Jesus figure be placed on the straw in the manger.

I thought, “This is fun. However, it would be even more fun in 1/6th scale. Therefore, we started small and built our way up.

At first, we used the dark haired friend of Barbie – Sweet Roses PJ. (since Mary was Jewish and peroxide was not discovered yet, so Mary would not have been blonde). For Joseph, we used a G I Joe Adventure Team commander since he had a full dark beard. We had Mary sitting on the Marx Shetland pony Poncho. Daily we moved the figures around the room, closer and closer to a small child’s table on which our 4-foot tree stood. On Christmas morning, the Mattel Heart Family Baby appeared in Mary’s arms.

Each year we added to it. The stable became populated with many other Marx horses. The Breyer donkey and Brahman Bull joined later for more historic color.

In two years, the table could not hold all the animals. It was time to make a real stable. Historically speaking, the manger scene would not have taken place in a wooden barn. Sheep and livestock were kept in the Tel of Bethlehem, which was a cave. The livestock would be put inside and the next day the traveler, herder or shepherd would arrive and as the sheep would know his voice, only that shepherd’s sheep would come out.

Therefore, the new setting must be a cave but to hold that growing herd of sheep, cattle and horses, it would not be small. For storage reasons I constructed it with a 1” PVC pipe frame, batting for form and a fabric cover so it could fold back down into a large tub for off-season storage.

Unlike the cave in Bethlehem, this one would be wired with electricity. We took candle-like flicker bulbs, covered them with long yellow fake fur augmented with additional colors via Sharpie pens. There was also a flashlight reflector under each bulb and inside the fur. These units were installed in niches in the back of the cave with one additional lamp stand near the front made of Sculpy to look like stone. The lightning effect is very effective with three different bulbs flickering.

For the final electric effect we handmade a manger with a clear recessed lid. Strands of straw colored hay were strategically glued down. Inside the trough was another flicker bulb. When the baby Jesus was placed in the manger, he radiated with a heavenly glow.

Since it was now too large to fit under a Christmas tree, we created a wooden frame that fit over the organ in our front room. The organ was given to us by an “organ donor” – really! (Feel free to groan that that one).The new footprint was about 5 feet wide by 4 feet deep. To complete the scene, we built another frame pf PVC that could disassemble. This one held a curtain of black velvet to angle into the corner. This was then lit with a cluster of white twinkling Christmas lights glued in from behind to be the bright star in the East, which the wise men followed. The rest of the lights became smaller stars in the sky.

Now we had a huge canvas to paint with 1/6th scale figures.

The year after the cave and background premiered, we added a few soft goods palm trees to help blend the look. They have a base filled with plastic pellets to stand up right. The felt palm fronds have a wire sewn down the center so we can bend and move them as needed. Winding one strip of tan fraying fabric worked surprisingly well to achieve the look of the segmented growth on palm trees.

Now that there was a central focus to the scene we switched out some of the stable animals favoring those with posing heads. A Barbie horse repainted to be Black Beauty was added to hang over Mary and Joseph to witness the wonder of the newborn king. The Marx Comanche horse could be posed to be sitting/kneeling to watch. In the past it has also included the Marx Mighty Viking Nodding Horse and the Kenner flocked Palomino horse Nugget from the fashion doll Dusty line since both had good pivoting necks.

Eventually the stable has enhanced with other animals from Marx livestock including: Thunderbolt with custom dapple gray paint and the foal Thundercolt, At another garage sales we found an interesting set of a horse and foal well sculpted and in 1/6th scale. Later a modern cow from the same company was added as it was sitting down and well sculpted.

A new scene necessitated a better Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. The new Mary used one of the highly articulated Barbie bodies. The head is Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Belle rooted in black hair and repainted with more of a Middle Eastern look as it was used for the very first Jasmine fashion doll for Disney’s Aladdin. (I had the privilege of presenting the proposed product line for Aladdin to the Directors John Musker and Ron Clements). Joseph has a Classic Collection GI Joe body with a head I made to be Captain Nemo of Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as one of the Disney Parks Special fashion dolls which was later dropped. It started as the Mattel Davy Crockett head then I added a beard made of Sculpy. The baby was Moses sculpted for the Kenner Prince of Egypt line but never used.

Between Aladdin and Prince of Egypt, most of the cast was dressed using early test models that I had saved.

Shepherds were added one year since they were the first to arrive. The first was a Classic Collection GI Joe wearing an unused test costume for Moses. After the line launched, the original presentation model of Moses was added to be a second shepherd.

One year we added the wise men. For these, we followed the Western traditional view of three wise men from the East as Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. This gave us the chance to add variety with one being Asian, one North African and the other Caucasian. The Asian figure is the GI Joe Tarawa Japanese figure. The North African is the GI Joe Hall of Fame Heavy Duty and the Caucasian used a Ken head with test rooting of a bushy beard. His outfit was one made for the Haunted Mansion plump executioner with an over robe courtesy of Aladdin’s Jafar from the earlier style when he was still wearing all black. However, they are still on the way to Bethlehem since they did not arrive until Jesus, Mary and Joseph were living in a house.

If they were kings, they would have had attendants and retainers so we have a few, courtesy of some designs not used of Aladdin and Jasmine. There is also a small heard of camels that would have used for transportation. These were test models of a camel from Aladdin and Habibi the Camel from Prince of Egypt.

When suddenly, up in the sky could be seen a host of angels… Well we finally added one and know where we need to expand next time we have extra time. The Angel is the only figures that I specifically sewed a costume for. The figure itself uses one of the Barbie bodies with straight arms used for several ballet figures. The head has the flowing golden locks from Sleeping Beauty’s Princess Aurora. We hang her each year with thin monofilament and she tends to pick up the breezes from the air unit and slowly spins around.

One year we added two Romans since Judea was under Roman control at the time. We also happened have two really nice figures left over from a Hercules presentation.

The last figure added so far is the Little Drummer Boy. Since it is a modern entry into the historical narrative, he was an afterthought to the scene. We used the Hasbro Young Anakin Figure from the Star Wars the Phantom Menace. I found him at a yard sale, he was small enough to fit and the clothing was non-descript enough so he could hide in the background with a drum.

Setting up this scene each year has become a family tradition to help us remember that Christmas really started and this moment and that Santa, elves and giving gifts are just ways to remind us of the greatest gift we were ever given.

May your holidays be happy and may your 1/6th scale figure collection increase!

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