Fiction: Christmas Eve in Bethlehem
By Marianne Wilson McKnight
For unto you is born this day in the city of David [Bethlehem] a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11).
Marianne Wilson McKnight, “Christmas Eve in Bethlehem,” Friend, Dec. 1999, 30Benjie was smiling from ear to ear when I picked him up after Primary. In his chubby hand he held out a picture of Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus in a manger. “See, Dano. Baby Jesus.”
“Did you get that in Nursery, Benjie?”
His head bobbed vigorously up and down as he proudly displayed the picture.
“Hello, Daniel.” Sister Williams, Benjie’s teacher, was holding her brand-new baby. “Benjie sure had fun in Nursery today. We had a play about the birth of Jesus, and he played the part of Joseph.”
Baby Jesus was all that Benjie talked about all week. For family home evening, Mom brought out the manger scene, and Benjie arranged each figure in the stable. Instead of having the shepherds and the Wise Men and the animals all nicely spaced out, he crowded them around the manger, “so that they can see Him real good.”
It wasn’t until the Saturday afternoon before Christmas that Mom could take us Christmas shopping.
When Benjie saw all the decorations in the store, his mouth dropped open. We walked past mountains of toy trucks and rows of new bikes. There was even a “Christmas elf” dressed in a green top and red tights, handing out tiny candy canes to all the children.
I was checking out a display of radio-controlled cars, when I felt a tug on my coat. Benjie’s brow was all puckered. “Where’s Jesus?”
“Where’s Jesus, Dano?”
I followed his gaze as he looked up and down the rows of fake Christmas trees and tinsel and toys. He’s right, I thought. There’s not a sign of Jesus anywhere, let alone shepherds and Wise Men. But how do you explain all that to a not-yet-three-year-old?
Fortunately Mom is pretty good at things like that. She leaned over, cupped his chin in her hands and looked him right in the eyes. “Benjie, lots of people don’t know about Jesus. They think that Christmastime is only about presents and Santa Claus. But we know that the real reason we celebrate Christmas is Jesus—right?”
He nodded solemnly.
She glanced at the banner hanging from the ceiling—Merry Xmas!—and sadly added to me, “The world has taken Christ right out of Christmas.” Then she looked at her watch. “Uh-oh. We have to hurry—tonight’s the ward party.”
Mom had helped plan the party for three months. This year our ward was doing something different. Instead of a fancy dinner with Santa Claus giving goodies or small toys to the little ones before someone read the Christmas story from the Bible, the cultural hall would be decorated like a marketplace in Bethlehem. Everyone would come dressed in biblical clothes. “Daniel, it’ll be just like we’re there on the night Jesus was born,” she’d told me.
I didn’t think much of getting dressed in a costume, but Benjie’s excitement kind of rubbed off on me. I helped him find his bathrobe and tied a rope around his waist. Then I put on a robe that used to be Dad’s and made a head-covering with a towel and a couple of safety pins.
When we arrived at the church, Mom dashed to help get the food ready. The sidewalk leading to the front door was lined with paper sacks with a flickering candle, nestled in sand, in each one. Benjie had to look into each sack at the tiny flame. I held his hand because I was afraid that he’d try to blow out the candles.
The foyer and hallway were dimly lit. A “Roman soldier” who looked an awful lot like Brother Bingham, our home teacher, stood guard. Benjie gave him his “taxes”—a can of vegetable soup for the needy—and solemnly signed a big squiggly B on the “census.”
In the cultural hall, white fluorescent Christmas tree decorations sparkled like stars. There were food shops, a tailor shop, and even a gift shop. It did look sort of like I thought Bethlehem would.
When Benjie spotted the bright star shining above the manger on the stage, he made a beeline toward it. We had to stand right there by the stage while he sang the first half of “There Was Starlight on the Hillside”* over and over. Finally he saw the cardboard lamb and chicks in a pen in the corner of the room and ran over to see them.
After that, we were hungry, so we “bought” our supper at the little shops, using the “gold” in the bags we were given by a “centurion.” Benjie would not have been more pleased if it had been real gold instead of spray-painted rocks.
We sat on a blanket on the floor because “there was no room in the inn,” and munched on pita bread and orange slices. Benjie had wanted to sit right by the stage, and he kept looking up at the manger. Finally he asked, “Where’s Jesus, Dano?”
“He hasn’t been born yet,” I told him.
Then he started yawning. Before long he lay down on the blanket. Mom came over and sat beside us. She gently smoothed Benjie’s sweaty hair from his forehead.
He was asleep when “Mary” and “Joseph” walked through the crowd to the stage. We all sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem,”† and Brother Dickson began to read from the Bible as some of the grown-ups acted out the Christmas story.
“ ‘And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger …’ ”‡
Everyone was quiet as Sister Williams, who was Mary, cradled her baby in her arms. He made some cooing sounds that sounded just like Brother Sampson’s doves.
Then Benjie’s voice, soft with wonder, broke the stillness: “There’s Jesus, Dano! There’s Jesus!”
My little brother had awakened and was standing, pointing excitedly at the manger scene. His face was beaming with joy. I looked over at Mom. She was smiling, her eyes shiny with tears.
I felt all warm inside. Suddenly it was as though I wasn’t in the cultural hall dressed in Dad’s old robe at all. Somehow, it felt like I really was in Bethlehem—on that long-ago night.
Nobody wanted to break the magic of that moment. Then someone started quietly singing: “Silent night! Holy night!” One by one, all of us joined in: “All is calm, all is bright …”**
I put my arm around Benjie and quietly said, “Yeah, Benjie. Jesus. He truly is the Son of God.”
Gospel topics: Jesus Christ, Christmas
* Children’s Songbook, page 40.
† Hymns, no. 208.
‡ Luke 2:7.
** Hymns, no. 204.
[photos] Photos by Matt Reier, posed by models