Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Traditions of Christmas - Crèches I

Tradition says that the first crèche was created by St. Francis when he used a straw manager set between an ox and a donkey as the alter for Christmas Eve Mass. It then became the custom in churches and monasteries to recreate the scene of Christ's birth. As time passed the tradition became more wide-spread and families began to create their own crèches or presepe: elaborate scenes that tended to reflect their own civilization more than Ancient Judea. In the case of aristocrats elaborate scenes in semi-precious stones, enamel, gold and silver and for poorer households painted clay or wood. The tradition spread throughout Europe and each country has their own version - I fell in love with the Provençal Santon on my first visit to the South of France in 1970.

Creche in Piazza San Pietro under wraps
The most popular presepe here in Rome are the two at Vatican City - the one above in Piazza San Pietro awaiting unveiling on Christmas Eve - though each of the 900-odd churches has its own and going from presepe to presepe is a post-Christmas pastime for many. The most elaborate presepe are in Naples and there's a street lined with shops selling everything needed to create your own - my friend Larry reported on his visit with Vin to the shops on Via San Gregorio Armeno to add figurines to their Nativity scene.

The first Nativity scene I recall having as a child was a colourful cardboard one. It came in a book and you cut out the figures and put it together - TAB A goes in SLOT C. After a few years it became frayed and as I recall a little unsteady - the ox had a bad habit of falling over on the baby Jesus if the table was jarred. I don't recall us ever getting another one. It was, after all, a rather un-Protestant tradition.

South West Corn Husk CrecheThat first Christmas Laurent and I celebrated together in 1979 saw the beginnings of a few of our Christmas traditions.Mary, Josepha nd the Baby One was a crèche - Laurent had grown up in Québec where they were always part of Christmas. Thumbing through the Neiman-Marcus Pre-Christmas shopper (they had such great things in those days) I saw a very unusual Nativity scene: it was created at a South West aboriginal co-op and was almost entirely made of corn husks. There was our crèche.

I've always felt there was something endearing about the fact that the baby Jesus is wrapped in bindings the way an aboriginal child would have been and the lamb is made Angel with a sheepfrom pipe cleaners. The figures have no noses or mouths just two black dots for eyes. A wise men lost an eye during one of the many numerous packings and unpackings but a felt pen corrected that - though now he seems to have what I believe is called "a lazy eye." And another of the wise men seems to have trouble standing and tends to topple over - reminding me of that cardboard ox.

So for the next twenty-one years we packed and unpacked that crèche every Christmas - Corn Husk Wise Mennot matter where we lived. The first year I built a paper-mâché hillside for it - that got lost or destroyed in one of our moves. In Mexico City I bought a patch of moss from a street vendor to place it on - only to have hundreds of creepy crawlies of unknown species come running out the minute I put it on the floor under the tree. Other years it sat on a buffet or a side table. There was always a candle burning beside it over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day - and the baby was never put in place until then.

Corn Husk Shepherd and Pipe Cleaner LambThen in 2000 I saw the most beautiful carved crèche at an artisan shop in Warsaw (I hope to have some pictures of it tomorrow) and decided that would be our new crèche. But being sentimental I packed our corn husk Nativity away with all the other decorations that we no longer used - the various soldiers, musical instruments, minature children's books etc from theme trees I had done over the years. Imagine my surprise when that box showed up here in Rome - it hadn't gone into storage. A few of those decorations found their way onto the tree and once again this year we've unpacked our first Nativity scene and we'll find a place for it.

Looks like Christ will be in two stables at our house this year.

18 decembre - San Graziano


Lorraine said...

Ahhh, I have a Christmas ornament of the holy Family that's made of cornhusks. Had it for years. It actually doesn't hang anymore and the manger is a little wobbly but it gets tucked into the greens on the mantel every year.

A more recent addition to the holiday decor is a set of wood blocks, each depicting various of the Christmas story figures. It was a gift from a priest friend who was at the Vatican for a few years. There was a special name for those but I've forgotten what it is...perhaps you know?

Anonymous said...

Wonderful tradition! Just wonderful. I value these collected stories from the Blogsphere because having grown up without much in the way of holiday tradition, I feel I can claim a bit of yours for myself. Thank you for sharing this. Do you always wait until Christmas morning before placing the baby Jesus in the Nativity? Just curious.

Willym said...

Lorraine: Yes I believe there is a name for those block and I'll see if I can find out from a few of my clergy friends.

Auld: I put the Christ figure in for the pictures but they are not put in the scene until Christmas Eve. That is a tradition carried over from my days in the Anglo-Catholic church when we would process to the crèche with the figurine of Jesus and lay it in the manger. And believe me you can claim any of our traditions that please you - that's another tradition of Christmas.

Anonymous said...

Here is a news item from the Vatican... refelcting change in the Nativity scene this year. Maybe we can go to see it together after Christmas!

Permalink: http://www.zenit.org/article-21335?l=english

Art Expert Says It Highlights Father's Role in Christ's Birth

By Carrie Gress
VATICAN CITY, DEC. 19, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The unique Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square is a reminder from our teaching Pope of a father's importance in the family, says Christian art expert Elizabeth Lev.
This year's Nativity scene in the square, to be unveiled Christmas Eve, will have a new twist, the Vatican Secretariat of State reported last week. Rather than a manger or stable, the Nativity scene will feature the home of St. Joseph, reflecting the story of the birth of Christ depicted in St. Matthew's Gospel instead of the typical passage from St. Luke.

Willym said...

Larry: Yes I saw that and had a bit of background from a friend and posted it. And I think we should spend a day presepe hopping - with a suitable break for pranzo??? Let us know when you're back from Sicily.

Anonymous said...

I am nostalgic for Christmas past, upon reading your post. You and Laurent have a very rich and wonderful life together, full of tradition, mementos, and fascinating stories. I have really enjoyed reading about them, and about the two of you. Our nativity scenes were always ceramic or porcelain, and my dad hand made the manger and crib, in exacting detail. He was a talented woodworker and artist. I have let go of these traditions, but feel the need to reclaim them.

yvette said...

1970... Provençal Santons ...strange to be so near sharing our us et coutumes and yet being so far now! When the Foire aux Santons starts in Marseille I will take special picts for you! Do you know the names of the Provençal santons and the special play which goes with?(in Provençal) In Pertuis which is still keeping traditions la Pastorale Maurel is given each Christams and New year period, same in Aix but perhaps more bourgeois...http://escolo.dou.miejour.free.fr/theatre/pastorale/pastorale.html