The Story of the Christmas Crèche
Compiled by Pauly Fongemie
Based on THE CATHOLIC HEARTH, Dec. 1994 and the book,
RELIGIOUS CUSTOMS by Fr. Francis Weiser, S. J., Available from TAN Books.
Of all the Christmas decorations we so lovingly place around our homes, the one that is indispensable as it is central to the meaning of Christmas, is the Crèche or Nativity Scene. And at the time it is assembled by the family, the story of the Birth of Our Lord ought to be retold every year. Children should be off to bed with visions of the Infant Savior in their hearts, not sugarplums in their heads. Where did this long-standing custom or tradition come from?
The Christ Child in the manger and other pictures of the story of Bethlehem have been used in church services from the first centuries. But the crib in its present form and its use outside the church originated with St. Francis of Assisi. Through his famous celebration at Greccio, Italy, on Christmas Eve, 1223, with a Bethlehem scene including live animals, he made the crib popular. Since then it has been a familiar sight in Christian homes all over the world.
             The crib should be a cherished part of the Christmas celebration in every family. It is not only completely religious in significance, but also presents to the children in a beautiful way the Birth of our Lord and Savior, assuming the character of a religious shrine in the houses of the faithful during Christmas season. It should be placed in an honored position, on a table or on some other support, not too high for the children to see it easily. Dignified decorations might enhance its attraction and solemnity.
It was, and still is, the custom to "unveil" the crib on Christmas Eve in a ceremony of spiritual significance. Parents and children gather before the crib or Nativity crèche, and one of the older children reads the Gospel of Bethlehem [Luke 2]. Then prayers are said and a Christmas carol is sung. At the conclusion of this simple rite, the members of the family wish each other a blessed and merry Christmas. It is at this moment that Christmas really begins in the home. Everything that went before was only preparation. This is the beginning of the Feast, and its high points will be Mass and Communion a few hours later.
  A crib for the family should be procured with care and loving effort. The setting could easily be created at the hobby bench during the evenings of Advent, Father and children helping together and using their imagination concerning the various details of structure, style and shape. The figures of the Holy Family, of shepherds and Magi and animals, may best be bought in a store. Once acquired, they can be used for many successive years.