A tradition born of a child's whim on a day long ago


The story begins in Philadelphia, where my grandfather, Edward Jacques Monaghan, went to settle the estate of his bachelor uncle about 1924. My grandmother, Lily Rose, issued a terse order that day, "Take the children."

My grandfather was a practical man and knew he would have to devise some method of keeping a 5-year-old son, E. J. Jr., and 7-year-old daughter, Stewart, occupied while he met with his lawyers at the Fidelity Bank on Broad Street.

He cut a deal. If his children would sit still in the lawyer's office for however long the paper-signing took, they could each pick out a toy at Wanamaker's department store after his business was completed.

The wait was long, but the estate was at last settled. The deceased's legacy was reinvested in Florida land near the Everglades.

Pop Monaghan must have felt flush with new wealth. Father, son and daughter exited the lawyer's office and turned the corner to the huge department store. Weighed down with unexpected presents, they arrived back in Baltimore via the Pennsylvania Railroad. My grandmother wanted to know what had taken them so long.

My uncle, E. J. Jr., had selected a circus, an elaborate floor toy with a ring and wooden jointed animals made by the Schoenhut firm in Philadelphia. My mother, Stewart, had picked out an Italian Nativity set that included a stable, infant Jesus, Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, shepherds, sheep, an ox, a donkey and three beautifully painted Wise Men.

The Schoenhut circus figures proved the bigger hit of the two gifts. The brother and sister Monaghans played and played with it, along with their O'Hare cousins, who lived on the third floor of the big old rowhouse on Guilford Avenue. By the time my mother married and had her six children, there were a few broken pieces left, maybe a monkey with no head remaining.

The Nativity set, however, was as sacred a household article as great-grandmother's wedding china. The religious figures were never played with, only put on display on the dining room side board, worked into the Christmas garden's mountains or set under the tree.

The Bethlehem setting escaped all the usual holiday accidents, including the time my the alcohol-fired boiler in my cousin's toy stationary steam engine ignited the Christmas tree. It was spared during numerous tree topples. The figures were never eaten by a Llewellyn Setter named Bill or a Labrador named Rocky.

Each January, it returned to its storage carton, the current one being a 1950s-era dark green Hutzler Brothers cardboard box from the infants' and children's department. The carton's side bore two words written in orange grease pencil, "Stewart's crib."

The yellowing and crumpled newspaper used to pad out the delicate figures was dated Jan. 13, 1956.

Usually, my mother read her favorite short story, O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi" at some point over the Christmas season. The Three Kings -- the Magi, (Kaspar, Melchior and Balthasar) -- were the most decorated part of the Nativity grouping. Their robes and headpieces far outshone the Virgin Mary's halo.

Pop Monaghan lived a long and happy life, watching the stable come out every year. So did his two children, who were never separated and lived in the same house until this year, when they died within six months of each other.

Pop's Florida investment did not fare well at all. A 1925 hurricane killed the land boom. Prices dropped. The federal government eventually condemned the Homestead property for a tiny fraction of what Pop paid for it. The spot must have been cursed. Hurricane Andrew swept through Homestead Air Force Base in 1992.

The stable, however, remains as good as new and returned to its place by the papier-mache mountain a few days ago, proving it's a better idea to invest in Bethlehem.

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