Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus together—St. Francis of Assisi named it "crèche," the French word for cradle.
The very first crèche was a living one, using real people, an actual manger and live animals. It was an object lesson of the incarnation, where God came to us in human form.
That was in the 13th century. The crèche was an immediate and identifiable image of the holy celebration that is Christmas.
And it still is for us today.
More than 340 nativities were on display in the St. Joseph Catholic Church School cafeteria in Cottleville this weekend. I was enchanted, and so were the countless others who visited these Scenes of the Nativity.
There were traditional settings with figures by well-known artists Fontanini and Jim Shore. And there were the non-traditional ones: origami, quilts and Legos by a sixth-grader who wrote on the information card that it was not made from a kit!
Interspersed with the mangers were nativities painted on Christmas tree ornaments or Russian nesting dolls, along with nativities designed within words such as “Joy” or “Peace.”
Mary Jo Verhulst was wearing a small silver nativity scene pendant. She and Judy Bailey are members of the Scenes of the Nativity committee. This is the fifth year for this event, which started with about 100 nativities on display.
In addition to the tables of crèches, Bailey spoke of the other activities for children and families. One is the “seek and find” list that is given to everyone as soon as they enter the hall.
“This list of fun or surprising things to look for helps to keep young children involved as they walk with their parents around the displays," Bailey said.
Another popular area is the photography studio where a professional photographer takes photos of families dressed in Biblical costumes posing in a nativity setting, she said.
Some families return year after year to have their photo taken as a way to mark how the children have grown.
There is also a room set up for children. I went in and saw crafts, coloring, a story time area and a table set up with a large and inviting children’s nativity to play with, not just to look at. All of this is available for free.
Scenes of the Nativity exhibit will return next year on Thanksgiving weekend, both Saturday and Sunday. It is a worthwhile trip and visit.
The church members hope the event will be self-sufficient soon through the sale of quilted nativity scene banners and a raffle for an fabulous white-and-gold traditional figurine nativity, which was donated.
“The money raised goes to offset the cost for the setup and the supplies,” Bailey said. “Should we reach a point when we are able to donate funds, we intend to donate to the St. Vincent de Paul Society.”
I went through the line twice, the second time to make certain I had marked my favorites and taken photos as best I was able.
I also wanted to simply soak in the scenes. From the Native American nativities in earth tones to the lifelike Joseph, whose posture and expression tells all, to a stable made of iris stems that seems so very realistic.
Although I didn’t meet artist Carol Ehlert, she and I share something in common. Many of her nativities were displayed, but what caught my attention was her explanation of an “ultramodern handcarved” crèche found in a craft store. It “stays in my kitchen year around” she wrote on a card by the figures.
A musical Fontanini figurine snow globe nativity stays in my living room all year round. My husband bought this for our family a number of years ago.
As I have walked both a public and a personal journey of faith, as an ordained minister preaching and teaching in churches and as me, a child of God, alone with my private prayers and thoughts, I made a decision to keep the incarnation out all year, and not put it away.
It’s too important to take out for a few weeks and then box up and store in an attic or garage.
God with us. Then. Now.
Not just now and then.