A Christmas Diorama

Anne here, continuing our daily Christmastide posts for the 12 days of Christmas. When I was a little girl, one of my favorite things to do in the lead up to Christmas was to make a diorama of the nativity scene in a shoebox. I made it all from scratch. A diorama is just a scene, and there are all kinds — military ones, dolls house ones, there’s no limit. But today I’m talking about a Christmas diorama.

First I’d paint the shoebox and thatch it with glued-on grass. And scatter more dried grass on the floor, for hay. The manger was usually the tray part of a matchbox, also lined with dried grass. And a star, stuck on a piece of wire hovered above my stable.

The people were the most fun. I used the old-fashioned clothes pegs as a body, and pipe cleaners for arms. And I’d clothe them in scraps of fabric; Mary in blue, Joseph in brown and the kings in whatever fancy fabric I could get hold of. My godmother, who always spent Christmas and Easter with us, was clever with all kinds of craft and could always be relied on for snippets of glittery braid and things like that.

I loved gathering all the pieces together and then setting it all up. Baby Jesus, of course, was added to the manger on Christmas morning. He was just a little white-wrapped bundle. One year he was a little acorn wrapped in white. In later years I made the people from plasticine.

Of course, they weren’t always of the nativity. Some featured masses of cotton wool, because every Australian child knows that Christmas must have snow, even if we’ve never seen it.<g>

Sadly none of the dioramas I made were kept, so I made one fresh every year. I suppose it was a good way of keeping me occupied and from being underfoot. And since we moved a lot, there was no room to keep things like that. But I’ve always had a fondness for a Christmas Diorama.

In the Christmas story I wrote for the WordWench anthology The Last Chance Christmas Ball , my heroine, Allie, is about to have her last Christmas in her family home, so she’s feeling a little sad and nostalgic. And she sets up her own personal nativity scene. . .

Allie  went up to the attic and fetched down the Christmas box. Made of oak from a tree grown on the estate, the wood had been sanded and polished until it was silky smooth. She dusted it and set it on the rug in front of the fire in the sitting room.

It had been made for Allie when she was a child, by Old Peter, an elderly workman on the estate. Every year he’d made something new to add to the box.

Each item was wrapped in tissue; first the stable—just three walls and a roof— then the holy family, carved and painted by Peter, and dressed by Allie and her mother; Mary in a blue cloak and dress made from an old dress of Mama’s, Joseph in a red flannel robe tied around the middle with a piece of string, the three kings and the wise men in rich robes cut from an old dressing gown of Papa’s and some scraps Allie had begged from the dressmaker one year. The kings were distinguished by gold paper crowns. Then came the manger and the tiny baby Jesus, wrapped in a square of white wool, hemmed in clumsy stitches by an eight-year-old Allie.

No nativity scene was complete without animals and Old Peter had carved an ox, a donkey, a few chickens, a cat, two tiny mice, a couple of camels—slightly oddly humped, as Old Peter had never seen a camel—and a handful of sheep, along with the requisite shepherds with their ragged striped robes and crooks.

Allie’s favorite piece was a carved and painted version of her beloved  dog, Gippy, a gift from Old Peter the Christmas she was twelve. Every detail was perfect, from the little tan eyebrows on the black and white face, to the feathery tip of white at the end of his black tail.

Gippy was long gone, but his spirit remained in this little carved figure. And on one of the shepherds, whose body bore a clear line of puppy tooth dents. Each year those tooth-marks made her smile.

She arranged the nativity scene on the mantelpiece. The paint was worn, the clothing faded, and the gold of the kings’ crowns was dull now, instead of shiny, but Allie wouldn’t change them for anything.

 * * * * *

As you can guess, that description has a few personal elements in it. The most personal is the dog, Gippy. Gippy was the name of a toy dog a friend of my father made, but the description is of my beloved dog Chloe who died some years back.

(And by the way, if you’d like the pattern of that lantern silhouette, click here.)

What about you? Have you ever had or made a Christmas diorama — or any other sort? And which of these home-made nativity scenes do you like best? (None of them are mine, they’re mostly from pinterest.)

13 thoughts on “A Christmas Diorama”

  1. Oh, Anne, these are absolutely wonderful! Thanks for finding them and sharing. (The peanuts are a stroke of genius!)

    I happen to know how creative you are with crafts and I love how you’ve woven that special emotional power of a handmade nativity scene in your Wench Christmas story. (Going back now to re-read!)

    • Thanks, Andrea — I loved the peanut family too. So clever and simple and fun.
      And thanks for the comment about our wenchly Christmas anthology — I have it on the keeper shelf and reread all the stories every year around this time.

  2. How wonderful, Anne! If I ever get any grandchildren I’m going to make dioramas with them. I love doing things like that too, such fun! I particularly like the photo of the ones made with pine cones as we have loads of those in our garden. I’ll have to collect some and keep them.

    • Christina, it’s a lot of fun — even without the kids. And yes, those pine-cone people look so cute, don’t they? I have a list of Christmas decos /ornaments that I want to make, and was determined that this would be the year. I didn’t take into account my deadline, however, so the only craft-ish thing I did was to tie a little bunch of my silver princess gum-nuts with red ribbon, spray the leaves gold and hang it on the front door as a small gesture to the season.

  3. I vaguely remember making dioramas when I was younger but nothing special sticks in my head. We used to play with an old nativity set like you’d play with dolls. That was fun. The first picture is my favorite. Love the colors.

    • Thanks Jeanne, yes paying with the nativity set sounds like fun. I used to enjoy dressing up the people with scraps of fabric, but once I had plasticine (a kind of ancient colored modeling clay) I was all about the animals.

  4. What a fun post, Anne, says a reader who fondly remembers plasticine. I enjoyed all the pictures you shared along with the excerpt. Happy (almost) new year!

    • Thanks, Kareni. Yes, Fimo and other brands of polyclay have taken the place of plasticine, and the benefit is, you can bake them in the oven and they’re them permanent. I have some fimo pieces I made more than 20 years ago.
      Happy new year to you, too, Kareni and thanks for being a regular wenchly correspondent.

  5. I have a crib diorama with figures knitted by my mum many years ago:

    Before covid restrictions my wife would arrange for Mary and Joseph to travel from house to house in our village ending up in church for Christmas day. I believe that the children loved it. The full knitted crib was on display in the church over the christmas period. I think the tradition may be restarted next year.

    Loved the images – very appropriate!

    • Quantum that knitted diorama is gorgeous — and thanks so much for the link to the patterns. I’m not much of a knitter (understatement) but I know lots of people who are, and I’ll share this link around.
      I love that tradition of your wife taking the full knitted crib from house to house and it finally ending up in the church — a lovely way to share and build community. Let’s hope next year it gets moving again. So many things have been on hiatus since CoVid first hit us, that it’s important they don’t get lost or forgotten.
      And thanks for being a regular wenchly commenter. Much appreciated.

  6. Dioramas are such a great creative project for kids, as well as gingerbread houses and landscapes. I remember making them as a kid, but not for Christmas.


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