The Ugliest Christmas Manger Ever and What It Taught Me About Authenticity

The Magi are too close!

Part One of a series on Imposter Syndrome and how to feel that you’re enough.

“The Magi didn’t arrive on Christmas. You have to move them.” My nine-year-old fingers clutched a figure garbed as a king and slid him and his cohort to the farthest end of the piano top.

My older sister had set out the manger, as always, since she was the oldest. She always put the three Wise Men right in the scene, but I could not abide them there. They had not shown up until much later after the birth. What was she thinking? It had to look authentic.I was very much into authenticity and realism and truth as a child. Don’t even get me started about the beggar figure and the drummer boy.

That same year I had a major falling out with a friend who had a crèche swathed in cotton balls.

“What is that?” I sneered.

“Snow.” My friend shrugged, clearly telling me ‘duh, it’s Christmas!’

“There’s never any snow in Bethlehem. That looks dumb.”

That was the end of my invitations to her house for a good long time.

The drive to create a scene worthy of the Christmas story drove me to the unfinished basement of our drafty old house where a stash of scrap lumber and some basic hand tools promised to transform my vision into reality. I would create a realistic manger scene, an authentic vision of the rough, rude shelter used for the birth of Jesus. The magi would be far, far off and there would be straw, not snow, for bedding. I clutched the handle of the wood saw with a righteous zeal.

I envisioned a rustic lean-to, open to the elements that would let the natal light shine in. I did not envision being unable to saw through the thick plank of wood I selected for the roof. Heavy footsteps descended the basement stairs and my father appeared at my side. He asked what I was doing. I explained I wanted my own manger scene and exactly how it would look. To my surprise (my father did not engage much with the kids, leaving that to my mother) he acted as skilled labor as I instructed him on exactly how it was to be constructed.

The result was a rough wooden shelter filled with figures from Woolworth’s Five and Dime, added as I saved up for each of them. My scene never had the place of honor on the piano top, but rather was relegated to a shelf in the sun porch, a place seldom used in the colder months.

But no matter. It was the fulfillment of my vision—my nine-year-old version of The Truth and authenticity.

I still have this wooden lean-to of a manger filled with cheap figures. Paint is chipped off of the angels’ wings and a few sheep are missing legs. It goes up every Christmas (in a place of honor). As I unwrap it from its nest of tissue, I recall that young girl I once was—a girl who was so in touch with her authentic self. Does she still exist?

Today an anonymous quote hangs over my desk admonishing everyone to ‘Be who you are, not who the world wants you to be.’ There’s a lot of advice out there to be yourself, whoever the heck that is, right? Usually by this time in life we have been sifted and shifted and buffeted by societal tides that have shaped us into ‘what works’ for the roles we fill, the needs of others, or, as a sacrifice on the altar of ‘being normal.’

What’s normal?

Writers strive to find their authentic voice—a unique signature of their creative essence. If you do manage to tap into it, what if no one likes it? What if you put writing, thoughts, stories, ideas that are so close to your heart out there and they are ridiculed, or worse, ignored?

Then the voices in your head whisper, “What makes you think you’re a writer after all? What have you got to say that anyone cares about?”

Even literary greats (like Neil Gaiman) suffer from “imposter syndrome,” which is the fear that one is wholly unqualified for the task at hand and sooner or later you are going to be found out. How do you combat it, do the work (advice from Steven Pressfield in his book The War of Art) and still be true to your authenticity?

I believe part of the solution is to become our nine-year-old selves again. Defy expectations, go down into the basement and find the scraps and tools you need, and bring forth your vision.

Visit in upcoming weeks for more thoughts on “Imposter Syndrome,” the effects on creatives, and how to combat it. In May 2019 I’ll be presenting a talk on this for the Maryland Writers Association (MWA) Carroll County Chapter.







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