I just set up the crèche in my living room, an act that gives me tremendous pleasure every December. Creches are supposed to focus on the manger scene with Mary and Joseph looking down on a crib housing the baby Jesus. Usually, creches include the 3 magi with their flashy gifts; some even have an ox and a cow. My crèche bears no resemblance to that pattern. Rather it mirrors a beautiful poem John Milton wrote early in his career: “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” The poem devotes the only 4 or 5 short stanzas to the actual birth but the majority of this splendid poem is about the effects of that birth on the world in which it occurred and on the present-day world. So the baby and his putative parents figure tangentially.
That’s how it is with my little house. I bow to convention and have, tucked away in the back of the manger itself, tiny terra cotta figures of Mary, Joseph, a cow, an ox, and a tiny crib with an infinitesimal babe in it. These I found years ago in a religious shop in Paris near my hotel and the large Catholic church of St. Sulpice. But my crèche tells the story of how a few people and many, many animals and birds have come to stand in amazement as they realize what the tableau inside the manger is going to mean. Some of my figures are expensive, e.g., 2 magical old women made in Germany and given me by a clergy-woman long ago, a tiny sterling silver rabbit, a stately bronze stag with a wide rack of delicately carved horns. But most of them are delightful ornaments contributed by many friends—a wooden white and black cow resting on her feet, a fluffy yellow camel bought at a community fund-raiser for some worthwhile organization, many cows and chickens of various sizes and compositions, a very pink china pig that was part of a friend’s own childhood collection, a white wooden cat who has lost his two stick arms widely akimbo but who still wants to be present at this strange moment in human history. The oldest piece is a faded orange camel made of the earliest plastic material used for such objects. That camel is all that remains of my original crèche given me by my mother when I was four and set up every year on a shelf in our living room where I could sit and move the various pieces around as long as I wanted to do so.
Children who come to my house at this season are fascinated by this set up of mine, especially the two precious little girls who live next door. Seriously observant Jews at the tender ages of 7 and almost-nine, they ask me around Thanksgiving “When are you going to set up your house?” I let them stand in a chair so they can get close to the bizarre but powerful scene. Adults who come to my house at this season respond along a wide continuum: some “get it” about what I’m doing with the whole display; some really don’t “get it” and so wonder about the seriousness of my Christian observance; some see how delighted I am by it all and indulge me by looking for new additions made each year.
The birth of the human person, Jesus of Nazareth, did indeed come to have a tremendous impact on the world around him and on the future of western thought and worship. My amassing my motley crew attests to my firm belief that humans are not the center of the entire universe; we merely inhabit and share it with the rest of God’s creatures. St. Francis of Assisi understood this and learned to communicate with the animals and birds around him. Many philosophers and aestheticians believe that at some stage of evolution, all species could comprehend one another. The story of the Tower of Babel is a later reflection of the separation of humans from their fellow beings. I believe we lost more than we gained by that separation and so I bring more and more silly and beautiful animals to my manger scene. This year, because I feel so hopeful about his papacy, I’ve put the two-inch high lovely wooden figure of St Francis with a tiny white dove perched on one figure front and center. He fits right in with my bunnies and chicks and camels and pigs.