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The Christmas Creche, 800 Years of Tradition and History

Do you remember setting up a nativity as a child? Do you recall putting the stable, the shepherds, the animals, and Mary and Joseph in place but waiting until Christmas to put baby Jesus out? Did you know that this beloved Christmas tradition was started by our patron St. Francis 800 years ago this Christmas? Before 1223, the faithful heard about the birth of Christ in Mass as described by the priest in Latin, which many may not have understood. St. Francis asked a friend to borrow his donkey and ox and set up a nativity scene in a cave just outside Greccio, with a costumed person playing Mary and Joseph and perhaps a wax figurine as Jesus. Accounts differ on whether a figure represented Jesus. Father Jim Sabak, our resident Franciscan, said, “It wasn’t a Christmas pageant, more of a representation of the birth, but without Christ because it wasn’t proper to impersonate Jesus.”  However, other reports indicate Francis used a figurine to represent the baby Jesus. In either case, what is reported is that a miracle happened in Greccio that day. The infant Christ, whether a doll or an apparition, appeared in the crib to be cooing and moving. “People fell to the ground in wonder and amazement,” according to reports, said Father Jim.

The crèche is an enduring tradition for the Franciscans, and it would be hard to argue that anyone embraces it more than our Father Jim.  At last count, Father Jim has collected about 140 crèches; some 50 or so of them were gifted to him by friends and parishioners, and some he has purchased himself, but not all are ‘full crèches.’ “A ‘full crèche,’” according to Jim, “is Mary, Joseph, Jesus, wise men, shepherds, a cow, a donkey, sheep, an angel, and stable/shelter; about 20 pieces total.” However, there is no limit, and many contain the whole tableau: shepherds, upwards of 50, all in different poses; thousands of sheep in various poses are available, as are pigs, steer, and elk; the animals can run the gauntlet. Says Jim, “A crèche builds from the culture where it was created to make it relevant for their culture. It can include geese, ducks, dogs, chickens, turkeys, and quail; the whole of creation.’ Jim jokingly laments, “I don’t have one from Australia, so no platypus or kangaroos, but the tradition is just goats and sheep.” Still, it takes an entire room to store his collection. He sets up about 15 or so in the house, then sets some up at the office at the Diocese, about 20-25 sets in total.  

His biggest crèche has 120 pieces, and he has organized his collection by country and artist. Angela Trippi, a Sicilian artist, makes clay figures, giving each a unique face, which is his most expensive. Jim remembers, “I did a program with her on Francis and the nativity that she so enjoyed she sent the initial pieces to me. I then purchased follow-on pieces. They can run at about $300 per piece! Fontanini is the one with the largest figures and is the one Father Jim gifted to St. Francis Parish on the 25th anniversary of his religious profession. It is Italian and modeled after Southern Germany and Northern Italy wood carvings. One of these artistic centers is Val Gardena, where Fontanini was born. This set has about 13 pieces made out of resin but based on the wooden carvings from the area.  Why did he start? “I collect them for the art and for the fact that when you look at the nativity, you see the uniqueness,” he says. “Mary, Joseph, and the kings are always similar, but the townspeople add uniqueness to each set.” He adds, “The best are the Santons of Provence France painted clay figures. You need to have a thief, a baker, an astonished man, a woman with a basket, and some people doing their jobs and not paying attention. Some are not recognizing what’s happening, but it still happens to those people.”

At St. Francis parish, we are celebrating the ‘Centenary of Francis’ from 2023 through 2026 in coordination with the Padre Pio Fraternity, the secular Franciscans in central North Carolina, one of the largest such groups in the country. This ‘Centenary’ marks several events in St. Francis’s life that have their 800th anniversary over the next few years. This year, we commemorate the establishment of the ‘Rule’ for the Franciscans and the crèche at Greccio; next year marks the anniversary of the stigmata appearing on Francis; the canticle of the creatures in 2025; and then his death in 1226 the following year. We will honor these events in Francis’s life here at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, starting this year with the ’Living Stations of the Crèche,’ and you can participate!  December 15th at 6:30, we will begin in the Labyrinth and move throughout campus. Jim Wahl, the parish Director of Liturgy and Music, will coordinate the event with the Secular Franciscans. It will be a processional event with 12 ‘stations’ throughout campus, ending in the church. For those interested in helping, signups for each station began on November 15th and can be found on the ‘St. Francis Serves’ website. If you sign up for a station, the details for each station are in the description, but please note that each station may require multiple individuals to represent the characters at that station. Practice for the ‘Stations’ will be held on December 12th. 

Following the ’Living Stations of the Crèche,’ there will be refreshments and a display of over 50 of Father Jim’s crèche collections in Fellowship Hall. What better way to commemorate our patron and celebrate the Christmas season than to participate in and attend a unique program offered by only St. Francis of Assisi parish? Join in the fun!

Author: Mike Watson