I carefully opened the worn, thin cardboard box, lifting the clumps of excelsior out, to reveal the crumpled tissue paper. I gently unwrapped the tiny porcelain figures lovingly nestled in the tissue, arranging them just so. Mary, Joseph, the baby, the angel, the reverent three kings, the awe-struck shepherd, and the wide-eyed farm animals. I fixed the small birthday candle, her star, in the angel’s hands.

I have done this every Christmas for the last 50 Christmases. And every year, I am swept back to the summer of 1973 when I was a wanna-be hippie, backpacking around Europe. With my youth hostel pass and Eurail pass, I was one of thousands of adventurous American college students, trying to see all of Europe in one summer. I had worked the prior two years, waiting tables, tending plants in a greenhouse, making agar in a microbiology lab, anything, really, to fund my dream of going to Europe.

Along the way, I met Tony, a British student, working his way across America. We fell madly in love and made plans to see the continent together the following summer. After a winter of long heart-felt letters, and months of planning, we met in Liverpool. And there, I also met his new live-in girlfriend, the one he’d not had the nerve to tell me about. His plan, of course, was that the 3 of us would see Europe together! Heartbroken, I fled to the nearby youth hostel, flinging myself across the cot and sobbing. And then I got mad, and then I got resolute. No mere BOY was going to ruin my European dream. I could do this on my own! So off I went!

I made friends along the way, meeting lots of other kids my age, and usually had plenty of traveling companions. And when I was by myself, I had long lists of places I wanted to see. Leaving England, I made my way to France, to discover that my high school French classes had not been for naught, and that the 7th grade French teacher who made us memorize the major streets of Paris had actually done me a favor!

After Paris, I made my way to Chartres, to see the cathedral and its famous stained glass. Surrounding the square around the cathedral were small shops, catering to the devout, mostly selling rosaries, Virgins Mary’s, nativities, and Bibles. I had very little money and it had to last all summer. And I could only take what I could carry in my backpack. I remember being drawn to the tiny nativities, and deliberating a long time over how many pieces I could afford, money and space-wise. Could I afford the cow and the sheep? So, I bought the little manger scene, and carried it in the bottom of my backpack the rest of the summer.

That summer as I hiked through England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, often alone, I learned a lot about myself. I discovered I was adventurous, brave, resilient and resourceful. I found it easy to make friends. I learned a pair of American jeans and a Mickey Mouse t-shirt could be traded for almost anything. I learned to eat food I couldn’t recognize. I began to believe in the kindness of strangers. I came home a slightly different person, better, I think.

And, I remember all of this, and more, each year when I unpack the nativity.

This year, I’m not sure why, I found the Chartres Cathedral on Google Maps, and idly looked at the street-view of the square. My eyes widened as I recognized the shop from long ago! It couldn’t be! But it was! I found their website, and fired off an email. I explained I had bought a nativity there 50 years ago, attached a photo of it, and asked if they still sold that same set. Wonder of wonders, I got a polite email back in French and English, with a photo of the very large glass case in the store containing the 100+ pieces they carry in that particular set.

Emails have flown back and forth between Xavier and me (we are now on a first name basis). I now know that Xavier has a deep desire to see Nevada and California. I’m encouraging Arizona and the Grand Canyon and send him pictures. He’s encouraging a return to Chartres, and sends me pictures of the Cathedral with Christmas lights. We trade weather reports. A bank transfer has been sent and more figures are on their way to me. Next Christmas, my old friends in the nativity will have many new friends; farmers, children, black sheep, angels, villagers, dogs and cats, and the three kings will have their camels and an elephant (Really, was an elephant there for the birth of the Christ Child?). But the old friends, who traveled Europe with me, will always be the most precious.

Make new friends and keep the old; one is silver and the other’s gold.