(Extra 1970’s cultural bonus points if anyone remembers where the title phrase comes from!) Well, Saint Francis of Assisi, revered Christ-figure of the medieval church, your turn to take us to the “woodshed” finally arrives! Dear readers, today we reflect upon the beloved Christian Christmas tradition we now call the Creche. You most likely have one, as do I, or for the closet OCD collectors out there maybe more than one!
While Francis was never formally educated in an academic theological setting, and only reluctantly accepted ordination as a deacon, he was undoubtedly among the church’s most astute teachers. Desiring to focus local villagers solely upon Christ during the Christmas festivals, he helped organize the very first living Nativity scene, in 1223 AD/CE, in a cave near the Italian hill town of Greccio. Francis situated live humans and animals for this nativity scene, garnering the blessing of Pope Honorius III for the presentation. The living presentation of the Holy Family at Christmas literally exploded in popularity so quickly that within a century increasingly elaborate nativity scenes were de rigueur throughout Italy. We can easily imagine neighboring towns lavishing more creativity and attention in a friendly competition of civic piety, and as years passed, live participants were replaced with the very best woodcraft, fabrics, terracotta, wax and ivory. Francis’ brilliance lay in his usage of local, native people and materials in the presentation, such that each nativity scene took on distinctive visual characteristics of the place which produced it. In effect, Francis’ vision empowered landed residents of the Italic Peninsula to relocate the Nativity drama to their own landscape, integrating the Holy Family with their own citizenry! Brilliant!
The term creche derives from old high Germanic krippa which sounds suspiciously like the English crib, or more simply, manger. A creche was originally a term for feeding stall, but now is inescapably linked to any creative visual presentation of the Nativity. Please web search to see astonishingly artistic and creative tableaus, canvass and sculptural presentations of the creche. Whether ornate or simple, look for key elements like: sociological mirroring in skin color and dress, as if the salvific drama had unfolded in their own time and place; guest figures from that place inserted into the scene, whether wealthy patrons or peasants to further enculturate (and therefore claim) the scene; how the Magi are presented as their traditions become more fixed over time; how light is portrayed nearest the Christ-child; and finally, my all-time favorite, the smiling ox and donkey…always! Every time! Hallmark relegates them most often in looking over the back of the stall as if they were kicked out and still super happy about it! So does ancient eastern Orthodox iconography. The great medieval painter Giotto brings them back inside the stall, smiling side by side as if they’ve just won the local lottery! My mother painted a ceramic creche in her early years of motherhood (I believe to keep from going insane with three young sons) which miraculously survived our destructive childhood, and Mom snuck a curling smile at the very edge of the animals’ mouth. Even the animals, it seems, know the birth of this child is good news of greatest joy. Smiles, everyone, smiles!!
- Francis captured a creche scene reflective of his own agricultural landscape, hence the ubiquitous wooden barn. Of course no wood would ever be wasted upon animals in the resource-challenged survival culture of 1st century Judea, bordering the forbiddingly harsh Judean wilderness. Holy Land Christians know, as do modern pilgrims, that the birth of Jesus took place in a cave! Web search for pictures of today’s caves surrounding Bethlehem.
- The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the oldest continuous site of Christian veneration anywhere in the world. It features a grotto underneath the current Byzantine basilica which is several hours’ wait for the modern pilgrim to see for about 20 seconds before being pushed out. But, if you’d like to pray for a moment at the location universally accepted as the site of Jesus’ birth, please see here.
- I am looking at my mother’s loving effort at painting the ceramic creche right now, atop our living room piano. I love it dearly and will pass it on to my own daughters. Do you have one? If not, may I challenge you to find one before next Christmas to add to your devotional Nativity holiday? A picture from Giotto or one of the several Italian masters? An icon perhaps? A ceramic or wooden creche? We have an outstanding example of a Bethlehem olivewood cave creche, all handcrafted, which one of our Holy Land pilgrimage families brought back. Contact me if you’d like to ask to see it, but it’s the most accurate depiction of the Nativity present in our valley. Just don’t forget to smile!!