From Around the Year with the Von Trapp Family
If asked about the origin of these old folk customs, one sometimes finds it hard to answer. They have come down to us through the centuries out of the gray past. Some are so old that they go back to pre-Christian times, having been baptized together with the people and turned from pagan into Christian customs. But once in a while we know how one or the other custom originated. The Christmas crib as we have it today goes back to St. Francis of Assisi. Not that he was the one who made the first creche. This devotion is almost as old as the Church. We are told that the very place of Christ's birth and the manger in which He lay "wrapped in swaddling clothes" were already venerated in Bethlehem in the first centuries of the Christian era. Later devout people substituted a silver manger for the original one and built a basilica over it; and, with the centuries, the veneration of the Holy Child Lying in the manger spread all over the Christian countries.
More and more ceremonies sprang up around this devotion, until in medieval times they had grown into a real theatre performance--drama, opera, and ballet combined. Finally, Pope Honorius had to put a stop to this, for it had grown into an abuse. A generation later St. Francis of Assisi got permission for his famous Christmas celebration in the woods of Greccio near Assisi, on Christmas Eve, 1223. His first biographer, Thomas of Celano, tells us how it happened: "It should be recorded and held in reverent memory what Blessed Francis did near the town of Greccio, on the feast day of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, three years before his glorious death. In that town lived a certain man by the name of John (Messer Giovanni Velitta) who stood in high esteem, and whose life was even better than his reputation.
Blessed Francis loved him with a special affection because, being very noble and much honored, he despised the nobility of the flesh and strove after the nobility of the soul. "Blessed Francis often saw this man. He now called him about two weeks before Christmas and said to him "If you desire that we should celebrate this year's Christmas together at Greccio, go quickly and prepare what I tell you; for I want to enact the memory of the Infant who was born at Bethlehem and how He was deprived of all the comforts babies enjoy; how He was bedded in the manger on hay between an ass and an ox. For once I want to see all this with my own eyes." When that good and faithful man had heard this, he departed quickly and prepared in the above-mentioned place everything that the Saint had told him. "The joyful day approached.
The Brethren [the Friars who had gathered around St. Francis] were called from many communities. The men and women of the neighborhood, as best they could, prepared candles and torches to brighten the night. Finally the Saint of God arrived, found everything prepared, saw it and rejoiced. The crib was made ready, hay was brought, the ox and ass were led to the spot....Greccio became a new Bethlehem. The night was made radiant like the day, filling men and animals with joy. The crowds drew near and rejoiced in the novelty of the celebration. Their voices resounded from the woods, and the rocky cliffs echoed the jubilant outburst. As they sang in praise of God the whole night rang with exultation.
The Saint of God stood before the crib, overcome with devotion and wondrous joy. A solemn Mass was sung at the crib. "The Saint, dressed in deacon's vestments, for a deacon he was, sang the Gospel. Then he preached a delightful sermon to the people who stood around him, speaking about the nativity of the poor King and the humble town of Bethlehem....And whenever he mentioned the Child of Bethlehem or the Name of Jesus, he seemed to lick his lips as if he would happily taste and swallow the sweetness of that word." (Celano. "Life and Miracles of St. Francis," as quoted in Francis X. Weiser, "The Christmas Book," pp. 106 f., New York, Harcourt, Brace & Co.)
That is the beginning of the creche as we know it in our own day. St. Francis' idea of bringing Bethlehem into one's own town spread quickly all over the Christian world, and when there was a Christmas crib in every church, the families began to re-enact the birth of Christ in their homes too. With loving imagination, more or less elaborately, the little town of Bethlehem would be reconstructed. There would be the cave with the manger, "because there was no room at the inn," and the figures would be carved in wood or modeled in clay or worked after the fashion of puppets. They also might be drawn and painted and then glued on wood. In some countries whole valleys would take up the carving of these figures--as in Tyrolia and southern Bavaria.
Some of these creches are works of great art. On the long winter evenings, during the weeks of Advent, the people are working on them. First, the scenery is set up again, and then the figures are placed, each year seeing some new additions, until such a crib fills almost a whole room with its hundreds of figures. Outside the town of Bethlehem, Connecticut, the nuns of the Benedictine Priory, "Regina Laudis," have devoted a whole building to their huge Christmas crib, a Neapolitan work that was given to them as a gift. This beautiful crib could become an American shrine, the center for a pilgrimage during the Christmas season. Just as the Reformation did away with statues and pictures of saints in Protestant churches, it also deprived many Protestant homes of the creche. A few of the German sects, however, kept up this custom even after the Reformation, and brought it to America. When the Moravians, for example, founded the town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on a Christmas Eve, they had preserved the custom of the creche.
At home in Austria we wanted a creche which we could make mostly by ourselves. That is why we did not buy one of the ready-made models, but went out into the woods with the children before the first snowfall and carried home stones, moss, bark, lichen, and pine cones. A large table-top, three by five feet, was placed over two carpenter's sawhorses and draped with green cloth. This was the foundation on which every year a slightly different scene would be erected by artistic young hands--the stony hill with the cave, the field, covered with moss, with shepherds in the foreground. For the figures we bought only the heads and hands, beautifully modeled in wax at a little store in Salzburg that sold handmade and artistically decorated candles and "Lebkuchen".
At home we made the foundation of the figures with wire and then dressed them with loving care, and it is incredible what ingenious hands can produce with a needle and thread and remnants of dress material. Every evening during Advent some time was devoted to the creche. At the end of the first week the landscape was completed; the second week was animal week, at the end of which many little sheep were grazing on the meadow and the ox was standing in the cave. In the third week the shepherds appeared, watching their sheep in little groups; while in the fourth week Mary and Joseph could be seen approaching from afar with the little ass, advancing steadily every day. Finally, on Christmas Eve, they reached the cave. The ass joined the ox behind the empty manger. Mary was kneeling down in expectation (that's the beauty of the wire under the blue dress the figures can kneel, stand, or sit), while Saint Joseph hung up a lantern above the manger and everyone seemed to hold his breath, waiting until just before Midnight Mass.
Then the youngest member of the family would put the little Baby into the manger and joy would reach its height. After Midnight Mass, the figure of the big angel would appear, suspended on a long wire above the shepherds, announcing, "Glory to God in the Highest." There is no telling how much love and joy goes into the making of such a crib year after year. Again I must go back to our first year in this country. Of course, Christmas without a crib under the tree would for us have been Christmas with something essential missing.
The beloved figures of our Christmas crib, however, were among the things we had left behind. But now the older children's Christmas present to me in that memorable first year turned out to be a large, elaborate Christmas crib with the figures and the little town of Bethlehem, self-designed, cut out of cardboard and hand-painted. Our neighbors in Germantown had kindly invited the children to help themselves in their gardens to the necessary bark, moss, and stones. In addition to the large Christmas crib in the living room, we had one more custom in our family as long as the children were little. We used to place in the nursery a large wooden crib which could hold an almost life-size Infant Jesus.
On the first Sunday in Advent it would be empty, but a big bag full of straw would rest beside it. Every evening, after the family evening prayers, each child could take as many pieces of straw from the bag as it had performed sacrifices and good deeds during the day "in order to please the Infant Jesus"--in other words, out of love of God. This is a precious opportunity for a mother to teach her little ones the true nature of a sacrifice brought voluntarily for the love of God. Meal times furnish excellent occasions for self-denial. To take an extra helping of an unpopular vegetable or to pass up a delicious dessert may be a real sacrifice for a child.
So Hedwig ate a whole plateful of very healthy but unloved beets, while Martina followed the chocolate cake with longing eyes, saying, "No, thank you," however. Toys gave another opportunity for self-denial. I could hardly believe my eyes when I found Hedwig's favorite doll, "Happy," in Martina's lap, and Martina's little family of dwarfs--Father Dwarf, Mother Dwarf, and Baby Dwarf--in Johanna's corner, while Johanna had put her otherwise jealously guarded doll house into the middle of the room for everybody to use. These may be acts of heroism; we have only to think of the parable of the widow's mite--in the eyes of God she had given more than any other, for the others gave from their abundance, while she had given all she had. What a race among the youngsters from evening to evening until the crib was finally filled to the brim!
When, on Christmas Eve, little Martina--for a long time the youngest among the children--was allowed to put the Holy Child on His bed of straw, the Infant seemed to smile at the children, grateful for the soft bed prepared with so much love. It is curious how such a childhood habit stays with you through life. You may be grown up, even white-haired, but all during Advent you will feel the same urge to "collect more straws for the crib."
In the old country we had in our house an oil painting showing St. Joseph leading the Blessed Mother, who was with Child and looked fatigued and tired, as they were asking shelter at the inn. Through the crack of the door one could see the ugly, rough face of the innkeeper, and it was rather easy to guess what he had just said. This picture played a big role during the last part of Advent in the custom called "Herbergsuchen" (seeking shelter). By lot, nine members of the household were chosen to be host to this holy couple, to make up for the hard words, each one in turn offering room and shelter for one day. The children, especially, vied with each other, decorating little altars with candles and fir branches and trying to outdo each other in loving care for the august visitors.
The one who was the host for the day could have the picture in his room and spend as much time with his holy guests as he wanted and school permitted. He could, for instance, take his meals together with them upstairs. How inspiring this is for the imagination of the very young--sharing even their meals with the poor Holy Mother, who "doesn't look so tired any more and seems to like it here." Every night, before evening prayers, the whole family would gather outside the room where the picture had stayed for the day, and in solemn procession it would be carried through the house accompanied by the singing of Advent songs, until it reached the next resting place. Each evening there would be enacted the scene before the closed door of the inn. We used to sing the old Austrian "Herbergsucherlied," the song called "Wer Kopfet an": Who's knocking at my door? Two people poor and low. What are you asking for? That you may mercy show. We are, O Sir, in sorry plight, O grant us shelter here tonight. You ask in vain. We beg a place to rest. It's "no" again! You will be greatly blessed.
I told you no! You cannot stay. Get out of here and go your way. When we were in Mexico, we learned that there they have a similar custom, called the Posada. On the nine evenings before Christmas they play the "Herbergsuchen" from house to house. They invite the local priest, who joins the procession, saying prayers. Eight nights the holy couple is refused shelter and on the ninth evening, Christmas Eve, they are let into a house where everything is prepared most lovingly--a large cradle is waiting, and while a statue of the Infant is put on the straw, the cradle is being rocked and a famous lullaby is being chanted, "A la Rurruru." As the weeks of Advent are now our busiest concert season, we have had to give up this custom of "Herbergsuchen"--but only in one way. Every evening of these holy weeks of Advent we sing our Christmas program in a different town. While doing so, we hope we may prepare a warm place for the homeless holy couple in many hearts among our audiences.