In 1223, Francis of Assisi (not yet a saint) worried that Christmas was becoming too materialistic, too much about giving and getting gifts and not enough about the birth of Christ. His solution was to invent the first crèche, a live action nativity scene (with real cows, donkeys and sheep playing the cows, donkeys and sheep, as well as people playing the people) staged in a cave near Greccio. A Mass was preached in front of it, and the faithful came from miles around to experience the wonder of the Nativity. Within a century, the crèche had become traditional in Italy, and by the early modern period Naples in particular was exporting beautiful figurines all over Europe. The puritans, of course, protested that this was idolatry, but today the Christmas crèche is as popular among mainstream Protestants as among Catholics.
For the past seven years, Flavigny-sur-Ozerain has hosted an exposition des crèches from late November until the beginning of January. Some are outdoors, some are set up in the windows of houses, illuminated by little spotlights. Each is individual, invented by the home owner, the business, or (and these two are significant) the seminary or monastery. They take all forms. Some are very traditional, some are whimsical, and some have turned out to be controversial.
My first crèche (which, like an idiot, I did not photograph) was pretty conventional: I borrowed my friend Wendy’s Italian santots, and set up a classic scene with shepherds and wisemen adoring the Christ child– and also a hedgehog, my totem animal. It was pretty enough, but unremarkable. Last year I got into trouble. At wits end about how to do something new, I decided to do a Toy’s Crèche: a pretty doll as Mary, a teddy bear as Baby Jesus, a wooden Pinocchio doll as Joseph, old fashioned toys playing the roles of the Holy Family. I thought it was a cute idea.
I hadn’t counted on the ultra-Catholic reaction (we don’t have many of these, outside of the monastery and the seminary, but it only takes one, it turns out). Pinocchio, you see, was a liar, and by casting him as Joseph, I was insulting the earthly father of Our Lord. My crèche was blasphemous, and some person or persons unknown kept coming by at night and shutting my shutters, making the crèche invisible. I wasn’t in town for Christmas that year myself, which meant that my friend Genest (who is the mastermind of the whole crèche idea) had to keep coming to the defense of my poor toys and opening the shutters again. I think he was actually very proud of me for stirring the pot.
This year I decided to play it safe–I don’t want my windows broken, after all– but also to make a subtle commentary. Last summer Lucy and I found the world’s tiniest crèche in Auxerre. Each figure is a centimeter tall, and they all fit in a little silver shell. It sits on a piece of velvet draped over some boxes with a spotlight on it, and it’s labelled crèche minuscule. I think it makes a point about the way that censorship reduces creativity, although perhaps it’s too subtle. Anyway, when people come through town to see the crèches, they lift their children up to peek in the window, and the kids exclaim “Oh! c’est tout petit!” in delighted tones, so I guess it’s a success.
This year’s award for most controversial crèche goes to one put up by a young man who lives across the street from the Church. His crèche depicted the Islamic tradition of the birth of Jesus: Mary, alone in the desert with her baby, like Hagar and Ishmael. No wise men, no shepherds. He was making a statement about interfaith peace and amity, but the person or persons unknown took offense at the crèche musulmane. What’s more, the POPU was canny enough not to protest on religious grounds, but instead protested because it was in the window of a building owned by the town, not a private dwelling, and thus violated France’s laws on secularism; indeed, it’s a rental property. So down it came, to the great chagrin of its creator, and plenty of other people.
It’s such a pity, because in the aftermath of the Paris attacks and the waves of Islamophobia that followed, it was a generous, openhearted idea. I’m certain Francis, who thought the Crusades were a dreadful idea, would have sided with the creator of the crèche, and not the person or persons unknown.