MINNEAPOLIS — The skunk is what first draws your eye to the shop window. Her name is Gladys, although passers-by on West 7th Street in St. Paul, Minn., can’t possibly know that. All they see is a skunk, carefully taxidermied and, in the best spirit of Christmas, welcomed among similarly motionless rabbits and squirrels arranged around a doll nestled in straw.
Against a backdrop of lace tablecloths, a pheasant on a branch peers down upon a porcupine that, however stuffed, requires deft handling. Merganser ducks with their showy crests squat alongside mottled fluff balls of quail and, improbably, a rather large armadillo.
This Nativity scene is unlike most and yet, maybe, truer than many to the original moment, said Rosie Wescott. “What they say is there were animals in the manger with [Jesus],” she said. “In any case,” she added, “We haven’t had a king come in with any gold.”
As Black Friday’s commercialism ran rampant, Wescott built the Nativity from old tablecloths, cotton batting and donated critters to recall the season’s humbler messages of peacefulness and tranquility and communion.
“See Rosie’s Christmas Window,” says the sign on the sidewalk by Wescott Station Antiques, in the Seven Corners business district of downtown St. Paul. Wescott and her husband, Wally, have owned the shop for 35 years.
It’s been 15 years or so since Wescott first placed a manger in the front window next to a taxidermied fawn found during one of their shopping jaunts in Wisconsin.
That first modest display tapped a certain generosity of spirit. “People would drop by and ask if they could put an animal that they had in the window,” Wescott said, which is how Gladys joined the scene.
Gladys was the pet skunk of a St. Paul woman who, upon the skunk’s death, had her stuffed. When her son saw the creative creche, he offered Gladys on loan for three Christmases. After his mother died, “he said, ‘Why don’t you just keep her here, meaning the skunk,'” Wescott said. They only know the son by his first name, but whenever they see him around town, he always asks after Gladys.
The menagerie grew again when a friend’s husband closed a marina he owned and donated its decor of stuffed ducks. New this year are two albino squirrels, their pink eyes directed toward the doll that Wescott figures dates back to the 1930s or 1940s. There are about two dozen creatures in all, from an alert raccoon to a spectacularly strutting chicken.
At first, Wescott said, the manger was empty “because our religion says that the baby Jesus shouldn’t appear until Christmas, but it looked silly, so I added a doll.” The display has gone through several babies over the years. “I think there was Archie Bunker’s grandson for a couple of years.”
(That would be the Ideal Toy Co.’s “Joey Stivic,” a rare boy doll, from the old “All in the Family” TV show.)
Pedestrians often appear amused, or at least bemused, by the display.
Nancy Andrews, an environmental engineer who works in downtown St. Paul, has been riding the bus past the antique store for years, watching the display grow and change.
“One year, you’d say, ‘Oh, there’s a rooster!'” she said. “I point it out to whoever will listen to me on the bus.”
But it wasn’t until last year that she and friends, finding themselves in the neighborhood, stopped and really scrutinized what Wescott has created.
“I like it because it’s not plastic and it’s not streamlined and it’s natural and, yes, it’s unique,” Andrews said. “It’s nice to find these little low-key treasures.”
You could be forgiven for finding it kitschy, and the sight of an alligator’s head peering up through the straw is a little disconcerting. But Wescott’s motivation could not be more thoughtful, nor more sincere.
Wally Wescott is his wife’s champion, harrumphing a bit at “all those displays with thousands of lights and how Christmas has become all about the toys. This is about God’s creatures.”
Wescott, who’s 72, always has had a soft spot for animals, though not because their family of five kids raised pets. “Oh, no,” she said, “It was more like the kids would bring me a baby squirrel that fell out of its nest, yelling, ‘Get the eyedropper, Mother!’ and I would feed them.”
All of the kids will be home for Christmas, a clan that now includes nine grandchildren, ages 8 to 30. Gift-giving will be modest, as always, and here Wescott finally cracked a smile. “I’m really easy to give to,” she said.
“Just buy me a dead animal.”