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PROJECT: Clementine Box Creche

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One special treat we enjoy around this time of the year is a box of clementines imported from somewhere far away. They’re little mouthfuls of sunshine that taste particularly nice while the sky stays dark so much of the day.

Plus there’s the box!

I’m one of those folks who can’t throw something away without looking at it hard trying to figure out what else it might be good for. With clementine boxes it’s hard NOT to come up with projects for them. The “wood” of the clementine boxes is generally speaking low grade balsa but it’s durable enough for many things.

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One extremely simple clementine box project that I continue to get compliments on is a stable for our creche. For those unfamiliar with the tradition, some christians decorate their yule time houses with a miniature display of the first Christmas. I’m told the tradition dates back to St Francis who gathered actual living animals and obviously didn’t stage the event inside a house. Contemporary domestic displays can be as simple as a baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph or as complex as an entire village. Ours is pretty mid-range. We have about 20 figures including a half dozen sheep, several goats and a donkey. They’re not big, roughly 1/12 scale which makes a standing figure maybe 6″ tall. Someday I’d like to have a couple dozen angels, a whole squadron of ‘em, enough to terrify a rough and tumble shepherd. I’d also like to hand paint the figures, make ‘em look a little less European. Maybe I’ll get to that this year. In honor of this being Christmas day, I wanted to share this project.

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The first step of any clementine box project is to eat the clementines or at least empty the box. Let folks know you’re looking for clementine boxes and you might end up with PLENTY. The next step is to carefully disassemble the boxes. This is done with a flat head screw driver, a pair of pliers and a phenomenal amount of patience. Honestly, this task will take more patience than you think you have and even then, you’ll ruin lots of the subassemblies. Don’t take the boxes apart any more than you absolutely need to. The manger has parts of three different clementine boxes. Once you start examining them, you’ll realize that different boxes have quite different kinds of construction. I was perhaps fortunate to come across a box that had a solid piece of balsa for the bottom. I have a container filled with clementine box parts stowed away in the basement just waiting for the next time inspiration strikes.

For construction the best adhesive is just a plain white glue. Spread a bit on both sides of the joint and let it get tacky before you join them. If you can manage it, try to stabilize the joints while the glue set us. Those big pincher style paper clips work as clamps for some angles. If you’ve got an upholstery stapler, well, that’s the best tool for the job but I’ve also used wire brads and a tack hammer. Heck, I’ve also held pieces together with my fingers until the glue set.

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If you want to re-create my exact design, I’ve tried to include photos from enough angles that it should be possible to figure that out. But be open to serendipity too. Like the little loops of wire that the angel hangs from was in the original box. I tried to take in consideration some of the negative space as well as the existing angles and proportions of the material. What this meant practically was that I only cut one piece of wood. I used a fine toothed hack saw but I bet that a nice sharp razor blade cutter and a straight edge would also work.

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I thought of finishing the manger with a wood stain but my tests just came out looking muddy. Balsa takes paint quite well. Or another idea that I haven’t tried would be to cover the surface with patterns made with a wood-burning iron. But for this particular project, I decided to keep the wood raw which I think relates to the theme of the story that the display is depicting.

A couple other silly addenda: When we bought our figurines some 25 years ago we made sure to find a set of figures where the baby Jesus is separate from the manger. Since we first had kids, it’s been a family activity to assemble the creche. We always place the display low enough that the kids could play with the figurines. And in a little bit of Christmas mischief, every year I would hide the baby Jesus. We’d always make an elaborate play out of looking in the box, in the wrappings but no Jesus. Until Christmas morning. I’d wake up the kids, yelling like a maniac “Baby Jesus is here! Baby Jesus is here!” We continue the tradition even though the kids have been on to my game for years.

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