When I was 5 years old my mother took me to see a manager scene that included two live sheep. It rained that afternoon and the air inside the pen was thick with dank, musty odors. My mother pointed out in her thick Filipino accent, “Look, hija, the Nateebity. You see the baby Jesus ober there?” But I had eyes only for the lambs of God. They were magical. They were fat and fluffy. They were very stinky.

When I was 5 years old my mother took me to see a manager scene that included two live sheep. It rained that afternoon and the air inside the pen was thick with dank, musty odors. My mother pointed out in her thick Filipino accent, “Look, hija, the Nateebity. You see the baby Jesus ober there?” But I had eyes only for the lambs of God. They were magical. They were fat and fluffy. They were very stinky.


The crèche was set up in a quasi-outdoor section of St. Boniface Catholic Church in San Francisco, the city where I grew up. My mother and I had taken two city buses to get there. Perhaps the Christmas display compelled her for two reasons. It provided a life-sized religion lesson and a free petting zoo.


Smell is the most powerful sense. An aroma can vividly reawaken a memory. I’m now 57, but one whiff of livestock takes me back to 1959 to the Nativity sheep, gray light filtering in from a wall opening. There was heavy straw on the cement floor, and large statues of Mary and Joseph flanked the infant Jesus lying in a willow basket. He was a chubby, smiling, porcelain doll with outstretched arms, and his head was crowned with a gold halo.


Its glint and sparkle drew me away from the sheep. As a 5-year-old, I was familiar with fairy tales. Jesus wore a crown. He must be a prince. But I was confused. I asked my mother, “Why does Jesus live here? It smells bad.”


She said, “Oh, he doesn’t care about things like that. He just wants to love you.”


The sheep stench was overpowering. I was puzzled as to how Jesus or anyone could stand being around it. I wanted to go to a candy store to buy caramel corn. So we took a dicey two-block walk from St. Boniface through the Tenderloin, a neighborhood where homeless people wandered sick, or drunk, or teetered on insanity. I clung to my mother as we stepped among red-eyed strangers with grizzled faces. We passed unwashed folks who wore soiled coats that reeked of sweat and vomit.


I remembered what my mother had said and wondered how Jesus could overlook such stink.


My mother surely didn’t seem to mind as she walked along, clear-eyed and calm. Yet how vulnerable she must have looked on that darkening December day. One man stopped and stared hard at my mother. She pressed me against her and said, “God bless you.” He walked on.


Years later, I would read 1 John 2:10, “Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble,” and I remember my mother’s childlike faith.


It is the season of the Nativity. One doesn’t have to be religious to find pleasure in the symbol of birth, the continuity of life, and future hope. For Christians, the Christ child is pure and endless love for all, a promise realized. Christmas is a reminder that the poor among us are God’s most precious because he was born among them. His unconditional love is a lifelong gift, no matter how long it may take to unwrap it.


Email Suzette Standring at suzmar@comcast.net. She is the author of “The Art of Column Writing,” available on www.readsuzette.com.