The Holy Family live in an old linen shoebag. The bag is dark brown, with a name-tape sewn just below its gathered neck where a stout cord pulls it tight, and each year on Christmas Eve the bag is opened and the Family, along with its attendant Wise Men, shepherds, an angel with a broken halo and various animals, are set out on a table beside the Christmas tree. They have their own stable, a wooden, open-fronted building, which has once been part of a smart toy farm, and they fit perfectly into it: the golden angel standing devoutly behind the small manger in which the tiny Holy Child lies, swaddled in white. His mother, all in blue, kneels at the head, opposite a shepherd who has fallen to his knees at the foot of the crib, his arms stretched wide in joyful worship. Joseph, in his red cloak, with a second shepherd – carrying a lamb around his neck as if it were a fur collar – stand slightly to one side, watching. A black and white cow is curled sleepily in one corner near to the grey donkey which stands with its head slightly bowed. And here, just outside this homely scene, come the Wise Men in gaudy flowing robes, pacing in file, reverentially bearing gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Jakey stands close to the table, gazing at the figures, his eyes just level with them. Occasionally he might pick up one of the figures in order to study it more closely: the angel’s broken halo; the lamb curled so peacefully around the shepherd’s neck; the tiny caskets carried by the Wise Men. Once he’d dropped the Holy Child, who rolled under the sofa. Oh, the terror of that moment: lying flat on his face, scrabbling beneath the heavy chair, hot with the frustration of being unable to move it – and the huge relief when his fingers had closed over the little figure, and he’d drawn out the Baby unharmed and placed Him back in His blue-lined crib.
Now, as he stands by the crib, Jakey grows slowly aware of the sounds around him: the clock ticking weightily, its pendulum a crossly wagging finger; the sigh and rustle of ashy logs collapsing together in the grate; his father talking on the telephone next door in the kitchen and the monotonous quacking of the radio turned down low. Today the decorations must be taken down because it is Twelfth Night: the last day of Christmas.
Jakey begins to sing softly to himself: ‘“Five go-hold lings. Fo-our calling birds, thlee Flench hens, two-hoo turtle doves, and a partdlige in a pear tlee.”’
He feels restless; sad that the tiny, sparkling lights and the pretty tree will no longer be there to brighten the short dark winter days. Still singing just below his breath, he climbs onto the sofa and tries to balance on his head on the cushions, his legs propped against its back, until he falls sideways and tips slowly onto the floor. He lies with his feet still on the sofa, his head turned sideways on the rug, and regards Auntie Gabriel who stands on the bookcase presiding over the Christmas festivities. The angel is nearly two foot tall with clumsy wooden shoes, a white papier- mâché dress and golden padded wings. Her hair is made of string but her scarlet, uptilted thread of a smile is compassionate; joyful. The clumpy feet might be set square and firm on the ground but when the golden wire crown is placed upon the tow-coloured head then there is something unearthly about her. Held lightly between her hands is a red satin heart: a symbol of love, perhaps?
There are several other, smaller, angels strung from convenient hooks about the room; but none has the status of Auntie Gabriel. Not as fierce and cold and glorious as the Archangel himself, flying in from heaven in all his power and majesty and trailing clouds of glory; she is, nevertheless, a distant relation: the human, fallible face of love.
With a mighty heave, Jakey rolls head over heels and stands up. He goes over to the bookcase and stares up at Auntie Gabriel, who beams sweetly at him with her lop-sided silk-thread smile. He doesn’t want her to be packed away in the soft roll of material that protects her fragile dress and padded wings, her gold crown wrapped separately, before they are all put into a large carrier bag and tucked into the drawer in the old merchant's chest. He doesn’t want Christmas to be over. Jakey is utterly miserable. Deliberately he kicks out and stubs his toe in its soft leather slipper against the corner of the bookcase, hurting himself, and his mouth turns down at the corners. He decides to let himself cry; he’s just going to, even though he knows that he’s a big boy now; that next birthday he will be five. He experiments with a sob, listens to it with interest, and squeezes his eyes shut to force out a tear.