The Fourth Week of Advent

Dec 24, 2021

Image: Kathryn Yingst

The Lamb with the Missing Leg

I have always hated knickknacks. It started back when I was seven or eight, when I would visit my grandparents’ house. What is it about grandmas and knickknacks? Do their families run out of gift ideas by the golden years? Whatever the cause, my grandmother displayed her fair share of trinkets. This would have gone barely noticed by my seven year old self, except that my grandma was a firm believer that a bit of hard work built character. So, during sleepovers at Grandma & Grandpa’s house, I would watch her cook delicious dinners—carting ingredients back and forth from the pantry—and it was my job to set the table. Then, that next morning, my sweet, apple-cheeked grandma would say, “I’m going to straighten up the house a bit. Would you want to help Grandma by dusting?” (By dusting!) My seven-year-old mind was unequipped for such adult trickery, knowing that any appeal for help by a grandma should not, could not be refused. Even if she did own ten thousand knickknacks. Lemon Pledge in hand, I sulked into the living room, lifting each trinket—one by one—and wiping the carpet of dust beneath with a wadded up rag.

It should come as no surprise that I grew up to be an upstanding citizen, with all that character-building. It should also come as no surprise that I now live in a house void of knickknacks.

This is why, when my husband of thirteen years saw me unpacking an expansive nativity set last Christmas and arranging each of its members on our dining room buffet, he was sure he had mistakenly stumbled into the wrong house. Once certain that he was in fact standing in his own dining room, his astonishment turned into a trademark smirk.
“What are you doing?” he dared ask.

“I am putting up a nativity scene,” I replied, as if it weren’t an earth-shattering event.

I thought you hated knickknacks…?” He said, still smirking.

I was nabbed, breaking one of my own rules. Here I was, arranging a motley crew of faded wise men, shepherds and kneeling gift-givers around a huge wooden stable on MY buffet. It was my grandparents’ nativity set, old and worn and vaguely gaudy.

My cousin and I used to play with all the characters every Christmas Eve, fighting over who got the baby Jesus until either an adult set us straight, or one of us gave in. We sat in front of the stable, marveling at the multitude of sheep, and the fact that the set included a camel and fake snow. Then one of us noticed the broken lamb.

“Grandpa, this sheep’s broken,” we alerted him. It was always Grandpa’s job to set up the nativity scene at Christmas. We felt a duty to inform him that things were not quite right in our mini-Bethlehem.

But Grandpa already knew. “That one is missing a leg,” he told us. “I put him around the back so I can prop him up.” And he left us there to wonder why anyone on earth would keep a faulty sheep when there was an entire herd of them—the rest having all of their legs. It wrecked the perfection of the scene. Who would want to keep a broken lamb? A lamb that kept toppling over every time the table got bumped by our clumsy hands.

And yet, there it was…every Christmas of my childhood….the lamb with the missing leg, propped up near the stable. Eventually, I came to look for him. There was something about that feeble sheep that eluded me and drew me in all at the same time.

As I set up the nativity set in my own home, I find that little sheep again…kept all of these years. He is the reason that, at Christmastime, I bend my rule on knickknacks. I remember how gently my grandfather had cared for him, even when we weren’t able to be as kind. I remember how instead of being cast out, the lamb was given his own special place in the nativity. I remember how I came to know about grace, that this lamb with the missing leg was somehow perfect just the way he was.

I place him around back, propped up against the stable. And I think, how blessed is this little lamb. From where he rests, he beholds the miracle of love so closely.

Kathryn Yingst
December 10, 2005