What Crèches Can Teach Us

Crèche is today’s fashionable term for what I grew up calling a Christmas crib set. Crèche may sound more highbrow, but it’s actually French for the trough where fodder for animals is set out. Like manger, it emphasizes the lowly aspect of Jesus’ birth. Crib refers to a baby’s bed without any reference to the unusual circumstances of Jesus’ birth, although cribs store corn as well. 

Whatever they are called, scenes of the birth of Jesus can be powerful teaching tools, expanding our theological and cultural sensitivities. Wherever displayed — in homes, parish churches or outdoor scenes — they remind all who see them that Jesus’ coming is the heart of Christmas. They are tangible religious education. 

Powerful Education

Just as the Christian faith allows for different theological interpretations, so do Nativity scenes. The Western Church emphasized the humanity of Jesus and showed the naked or nearly naked baby; the Eastern Church played up Jesus’ divinity, often by having light coming down from heaven. 

Religious circles debate the concept of sacred space, how set apart the holy should be from ordinary life. These different ideas filter into Nativity scenes of various countries. Italian, German and Austrian scenes use fences or are built upwards to indicate sacred space. But they usually make it clear that everything is moving from the profane to the sacred. 

People of the Iberian peninsula wanted everyone to realize that Jesus was born in an actual place on earth, in Palestine. So the Spanish called their Nativity scenes belen, the Portuguese belem, both emphasizing that Jesus came to earth in Bethlehem. 

In the Italian Renaissance, presépios (the barn or enclosure where the Incarnation takes place) grew quite elaborate. Presépios began to include contemporary figures and eventually encompassed whole towns. 

Having acquired some santoni figurines from traders out of Naples and Genoa, the French created their own version. They called these “little saints” santons. Especially in Provence, this tradition is strong. Some of the Italian and French figures are made out of painted white clay; some are dressed like dolls in regal or common fabrics. 

What Crèches Teach

These contemporary scenes were teaching (at least subliminally) that the Incarnation continues wherever we make Jesus real in our hearts, actions and lives. Because these scenes included figurines of people encountered daily, they brought home the fact that the Incarnation didn’t just occur 2,000 years ago but is a present event. 

One intriguing example of theology in action is how over the years crèches have depicted St. Joseph’s role in the Christmas story. The Gospels say that Joseph hesitated over what to do when he learned his fiancée was pregnant. Joseph was worried whether he could trust Mary. He was concerned about what the neighbors might say if they discovered he was not the father. Because it took a dream and an angel’s reassurance that he should go ahead with his marriage, many Christians have seen him as weak. 

So in early depictions of the Nativity scene, Joseph was pushed to the background or omitted entirely. “The ox and ass are in a certain sense more integrally related to the action than is Joseph,” says Father Johann G. Roten, S.M., director emeritus of the Marian Library at the University of Dayton and a board member of Friends of the Crèche. His key example from the Library’s more than 1,200 crèches is an exquisite ivory miniature from the fifth century which shows Joseph present but frowning in the corner. 

But Joseph’s reputation got a boost from St. Bridget of Sweden’s vision of Jesus as the light child. Light also suffused Mary and Joseph, Father Roten says. In crèche scenes today Joseph is often holding a lamp or a staff, indicating his role as protector and support. 

Some crèches make another theological point if they are placed in a classical ruin, symbolic of the world order (the Roman Empire) being turned on its head by this baby. 

In crèche scenes, angels take on different roles that come straight out of the Bible: they announce Jesus’ coming to the shepherds; they play the trumpet or harp or sing; they adore the baby; they protect the Holy Family. In French Canadian families, one of the most treasured crèche figures is the angel with the big cheeks, getting ready to blow his trumpet. 

Teaching Radical Equality

The diversity of cultural depictions tells us that Jesus came for everyone. When whole French villages come together, distinctions between rich and poor disappear. The merchant stands next to the gypsy. Their clothes reveal their status, but their actions bring them together. 

Elaborate Italian presépios, like the one featured yearly at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, retain the class distinctions. The king, the nobles and the wealthy are next to heaven. Then come tradespeople, common people and shepherds. On the lowest level is the Holy Family in a stable in the no-account town of Bethlehem. 

A variant of this celestial mountain approach is the crèche pyramid with revolving layers and propellers, popular in Germany and Austria. 

Respect for Different Cultures

“Crèches bring together faith and art,” says James L. Govan, author of Art of the Crèche: Nativities From Around the World (Merrell Publishing Limited, 2007). 

Govan, an active Catholic layman who worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development for 34 years, started collecting crèches with his late wife, Emilia. One of the last promises he made her was to stay involved with a group forming in 1999, which became Friends of the Crèche. 

What had amazed Jim and Emilia — and anyone else who gets into studying or collecting crèches — is the sheer diversity in artists’ depictions of the Nativity. Crèches teach a respect for different cultures. With the internationalization of the Church, often today the Holy Family and the other figures in crèches from the Third World look more like Asians, Africans, South Americans and Pacific islanders. 

Instead of the traditional gold, frankincense and myrrh, the gifts the wise men bring may be fish or rice or whatever is most precious in that society. And what others in crèche scenes bring the Holy Family is whatever they think would be most useful or whatever they love the most, such as soap, snails or pets. 

For Pastors

Pastors can promote the tradition of the crèche in very important ways. The first is by encouraging each of their parishioners to have at least one crèche in their home. “It is in the bosom of the family that parents are ‘by word and example. . .the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children,’” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 1656). 

If the family home is the “domestic Church” and the place where primary religious education takes place, then placing a crèche under the Christmas tree or on the mantel or in the center of the dining room table says clearly what this feast is all about. 

This crèche can center family prayer during Advent and Christmastime so that believing families become “centers of living, radiant faith,” as the Catechism promotes. 

In families with young children, crèches should be touchable. Preschoolers learn by touching and hugging the figures. 

The second way for pastors to get involved is by emphasizing the crèche scene in church. Special attention needs to be given to lighting and scene construction, fabrics, non-flammable greenery and arrangement of the figures. Artistic parishioners can take the lead here. During Christmas homilies, pastors should reference the parish crèche scene and invite families to see it up close after Mass. 

With some parishes closing, other parishes may be inheriting or swapping crèche scenes. Many have ethnic characteristics that reassure parishioners that their traditions are being respected. Christmas is one time when traditions really do matter. 

St. Francis Seraph Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio, is an old German parish now in a poor inner-city neighborhood. It has a large crèche set with sweet Aryan faces on the Mary, Joseph and Jesus figures. It also has a sheep with one hind leg scratching the other, a wonderfully naturalistic gesture that endears it to the locals. 

The third way parishes can promote the crèche is by setting up some sort of outdoor display. Everyone passing a church should be able to tell what that church is all about. These days, lighting and anti-theft precautions for Christmas displays are paramount concerns, but some balance between cost and witness can be found. 

For help setting up or freshening a crèche display or just to learn more about crèches, sign up for the Creche Herald (see www.op.net/-bocassoc). This publication can be ordered separately or as part of the membership benefits of the interfaith, national organization Friends of the Creche. 

Materials and Memories

The sheer creativity of crèches from various traditions is overwhelming. The materials range from porcelain to clay, from iron to straw, from coal to satin. 

My maternal grandparents had a large painted nativity set with an extraordinary camel for one of the kings. The first crèche I bought as an adult was one made of olive wood, purchased in Bethlehem. The rough carving reminds me of the wood of the cross. My personal crèche collection grew from there. Once people discovered that I liked crèches, they started giving them to me. 

Catholic parishes, like some of their Lutheran and Mormon counterparts, could organize sharing of these private collections in Catholic activity centers and libraries. 

Although I sometimes have qualms about the materialism of collecting, my conscience is usually assuaged by remembering that this crèche tradition goes back to St. Francis of Assisi. His mother, Lady Pica, may have brought early santons with her from France when she married Pietro Bernardone. That’s a guess. But what is documented is that St. Francis felt so strongly about the Incarnation’s importance that at Greccio, Italy, in 1223, he re-created the scene of Jesus’ birth. For him, the Incarnation was the ultimate proof of how much God loved us. 

Francis wanted us to realize the enormity of God’s gift of Jesus. He saw all of creation included in the mystery of salvation. 

These are among the lessons of the Christmas crèche. TP 

Barbara Beckwith recently retired as managing editor of the Franciscan-owned St. Anthony Messenger where she had worked for 37 years. She developed her love of crèches during travel for the International Catholic Union of the Press and is a member of Friends of the Creche.