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.
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.
That first Christmas Laurent and I celebrated together in 1979 saw the beginnings of a few of our Christmas traditions. 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 from 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 - not 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.
Then 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