My grandmother knitted this - yes all those figures and the manger and even the sheep. And she sent it over packaged in a box containing a bar of ivory soap, which I gather is supposed to keep the figures fresh all year. I don't know if it's true, but every December when I did out the box and open it, the first thing I notice is that fresh soapy smell.
The second thing I notice is the smell of the wool, and it's a smell that takes me back to childhood, and many, many Christmases of Grandma's knitted sweaters (the white one with a horse and rider, and matching hat) and all the teeny woolen clothes - dresses and onesies and hats and underwear and leggings and coats - that she used to make for my dolls.
There is a Nativity scene just like it somewhere at the Vatican. At least there used to be. My grandmother made a few of them, one of which went to my Aunt Valerie (who is also Sister Valerie) who was living in Rome at the time.
My kids love to set it up, and spend time deciding where in the creche to place them all, and who of the wise men or shepherds gets to be inside and who outside. Depending on where they are placed, it tells a different story.
It's usually the first thing to come out at Christmas, and I love to watch them ever so serious in their task of setting it up just so. I'm neither Catholic nor particularly religious, but I love what this scene represents - the miracle and hope of birth, the promise and mystery of life.
But I love my Nativity Scene most for a different reason altogether.
I love it for the textures and the smells and the picture it conjurs up of my grandmother sitting by the electric fire in her Liverpool flat, beside the great brass candlesticks and horse brasses I used to polish when I stayed there long ago. The silver Christmas tree and the budgies, and the big old scullery/pantry where all the scones and cakes where piled high. Electric blankets on the bed and a woven stool my brother and I used to turn upside down and pretend was a boat. The box of cars, and a small shelf with dusty hardcover school books belonging to my dad and his brothers and sister when they were kids themselves.
So much more than just a Nativity Scene.