Away In The Secular Manger Commentator Michelle Nijhuis is a secular science journalist with an amalgam of friends from various religious backgrounds. So when her young daughter expressed wonder over a creche, she had to think for a moment: What is Christmas really about, anyway?

Away In The Secular Manger

Do nativity scenes hold importance to you? iStockphoto.com hide caption

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Do nativity scenes hold importance to you?

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A friend returned from Mexico with a gift for my daughter: a creche, its clay figurines as smooth and small as baby carrots.

"I've always loved creches, for some reason," my friend says. "Maybe she will, too."

I show the creche to my 1-year-old and she grins, grabbing for the brightly painted figurines. She inspects the miniature shepherds, the manger, the cows, the sheep, turning them over and over in her sticky hands. "That's Mary," I say, pointing. "That's a king, and that's another king. They brought frankincense, and myrrh, and ..."

"Gold," my husband says dryly.

Gold. I sigh. Beyond my derelict attendance at Sunday school, I've never been a churchgoer, and neither has my husband. I'm a science journalist, so I think a lot about life and its origins. My husband is an EMT, so he thinks a lot about lives and their endings. Among our friends are Buddhists and Seventh-day Adventists, Hindus and Greek Orthodox Christians, Quakers and Jews. Out of this hodgepodge of influences, we've pieced together some personal commandments: Pay attention. Be grateful. Be honest. Be kind. And whenever possible, be outside.

Michelle Nijhuis is a contributing editor of High Country News. JT Thomas/Courtesy of Michelle Nijhuis hide caption

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JT Thomas/Courtesy of Michelle Nijhuis

Michelle Nijhuis is a contributing editor of High Country News.

JT Thomas/Courtesy of Michelle Nijhuis

But we haven't adopted a religion, and, as I watch my daughter play with the creche, I wonder how our choices will affect her. Our small town is predominantly Christian, with enough churches of enough denominations to fulfill a city twice its size. Someday, my daughter will want to know the story of Christmas. She'll want to know why it's so important to so many of her classmates, and what it might mean to her. I'm not even sure what it means to me, beyond a reason to gather with friends and family on the darkest nights of the year. What will I tell her?

My daughter looks at tiny Joseph, a young, uncertain father with a crooked smile and a gilt-edged cloak. She picks up the Jesus figure and holds it triumphantly above her head, her six-and-a-half teeth on proud display. "Bay-bee!" she says.

"Yeah, that's baby Jesus," I say. "His mom and dad loved him a whole lot, too."

My daughter keeps smiling. For now, she has all the answers she needs.

Michelle Nijhuis is a contributing editor of 'High Country News.' Her work has also appeared in 'Smithsonian,' 'National Geographic' and the 'The New York Times.' She and her family live off the grid in Paonia, Colo.