In the living room of our house – from which all four children have long gone to live their chosen lives – fitting snugly into the bay window, there is an old pine dough box.
A dough box is a very plain piece of furniture. In its simplicity it could easily be mistaken for a Shaker piece. It has that clean-lined timeless look. It would have been made on the farm at the request of the woman of the house. Each evening she would have removed the flat pine lid, deposited the dough she had just made, replaced the cover and allowed the dough to rise during the night hours, ready for baking in the morning.
Many decades after bread would have been prepared in this way, we discovered our dough box, roughly painted and slightly damaged, in the loft above the old stable that adjoined the rectory of our first parish in the Ottawa Valley. We brought it in, stripped and polished it, and gave it a home. In our house it had no particular use other than being a lovely – and eventually beloved – piece of traditional furniture. Pine polishes beautifully. A blue bowl or vase can be its perfect companion.
In the case of this particular dough box something almost magical would happen every year to make it mysterious and even sacred. It became a manger crib for the baby Jesus in the annual Sunday School pageant. Before it was taken out to the church it was polished until the old pine shone. Then, because it was going to become a manger for the Christ Child and therefore needed to be open, the cover was taken off.
Inside would be placed the hay – or sometimes the straw – that would transform the dough box into a manger. When we were in city parishes there would be the question of finding a source for hay or straw. However, there would always be somebody in the congregation who would know someone else who had acreage, and all would be well.
Before we left the house for the church some other things went into the dough box, things that would eventually be carried solemnly by various children. A brass box, shining and ornate, would serve as the gift of Gold to the Holy Child, and two pottery vases, one blue and one green, that would serve as the gifts of Frankincense and Myrrh. Thus equipped we would drive to the church for the first rehearsal of the pageant.
Invariably those families who were new to the congregation would express admiration for the dough box. Some would tell how their grandparents or elderly friends of their parents had had a dough box but somehow it had got lost. You could see that some now regretted that loss as they ran their fingers along the gleaming pine of the box standing in the chancel.
As the day of the pageant approached something rather mysterious began to happen. You couldn’t help noticing the way in which many would begin to regard the old dough box. They seemed to relate to it as no longer merely a piece of farmhouse furniture. Somehow, even if only because it had been brought into the sanctuary of the parish church, it seemed as if it had now been elevated, prepared and ready to serve its purpose, a purpose that – again mysteriously – was both far away in the infinitely distant village of Bethlehem but at the same time was also here among us in our parish church. Most mysteriously, both there in Bethlehem and here in our church, the dough box would first become a humble manger, then, leaving behind every vestige of that humility, it would again be changed to become the sleeping place of the newborn Son of God.
Many years have passed since the old box carried its royal burden. Since then it has travelled with us over many miles and stood in various rectories. In its travels and in its various homes it has been used in various ways, mostly for humble purposes. It has stored school books, supported potted plants and various vases of flowers. At one time it became a bookshelf in someone’s room, at another it shone with candles placed for a party.
The thought came to me one day how readily this simple but lovely piece has laid aside its sacred role of bearing the Holy Child of Christmas, and has accepted a humble and even mundane existence in our home. But then I remembered how Saint Paul tells us that our Lord Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness”, and I understand.