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Catholic Activity: Christmas Crib or Creche

The Christmas crib or creche continues to have a universal appeal. Presented here is a background of the creche, and some suggestions on how to create a personalized family crib.

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It is curious that the fascination of the crib never fades, even though the figures grow old and chipped and the background, with its brown paper rocks, sprinkled with glittering silver, becomes more fantastic every year. It is a fascination that few can resist. Though people may smile at the extravagances and tinsel and silver paper of some church cribs, yet they still take their turn in the queue to light a candle and to gaze into the manger. Children never try to resist the lure of the crib. To them its chief attraction lies in the fact that it tells a story, and a story with a baby in it. Children, left to themselves, are perfectly at home at the crib. They will lift out the bambino to nurse and kiss it — often with the disapproval of the sacristan — for by Epiphany the bambino's face will be kissed quite colorless and his swaddling clothes smeared with finger-marks. Children hardly see the figures in the grotto as puppets; for them it is all real, as real as it was to the peasants of 14th century Germany, who used to take turns at rocking the Christ-child to sleep in his crib, or like the little Dutch boy who took the bambino for a ride on his bicycle.

In some churches, and in some countries, cribs are judged simply by their size and magnificence, so that the Christmas crib is not complete unless it grows in grandeur every year. The retinue of the three kings becomes more magnificent, the shepherds grow in number, their flocks increase rapidly. But the curious thing is that, despite all this distraction the three central figures are hardly ever dwarfed. Fashions in cribs have come and gone, but the human trinity round which they center never changes.

It is often thought that St. Francis made the first crib, but the devotion is far older than that. It goes back to the first days of the Church, when the actual site of Christ's birth and the clay manger in which he lay were venerated in Bethlehem. In time a silver manger was substituted for the clay one, and a basilica was built over the site. Copies of this crib spread to Rome and over the Christian world.

Veneration expanded with the centuries. The crib that was used at Christmas might be a model of the clay manger, or a painting or a mosaic of the Nativity. Various ceremonies grew up around it, until by the 13th century they had evolved into theatrical drama and opera combined, with a snatch of folk-dancing thrown in. Then Pope Honorius stopped the whole thing, and sixteen years afterwards St. Francis of Assisi was allowed to make a wooden manger, to fill it with hay, to tether an ox and ass nearby, and to gather round it a group of people who sang songs and carols in honor of the birth of the Christ-child. That is the beginning of the crib as we know it.

Nowadays the custom of having a crib in the home has been considerably revived. What might more often be seen however, is the crib made at home by the different members of the family, instead of the repository article. It is possible to buy designs for cribs, and to make them up yourself. What is better is to try to design your own crib figures and to make them entirely. They may be drawn and glued on wood, carved or modeled; they may be made after the fashion of puppets; if there are children in the family, then their dolls may be utilized.

What is important is to have some means whereby the crib-makers are represented at the crib they have set up. This may be done by adding additional figures; or small flags bearing the makers' names can fly outside the crib. There have even been cribs in which ingenious people have stuck among the straw cut-out, full-length photographs of themselves. Not that that particular effect was very beautiful, but at any rate it did convey something of the truth which the setting up of any crib should convey — that we number ourselves among the people who acknowledge Christ and who worship him.

Activity Source: Candle is Lighted, A by P. Stewart Craig, The Grail, Field End House, Eastcote, Middlesex, 1945

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