The Nativity scene in the Sweeney family home has made its appearance — it’s Advent, after all.

But Baby Jesus’ place awaits him on Christmas.

“We always make sure that’s our top priority for decorations,” explained Rachel Sweeney of their Nativity setup. “That goes up before anything else. If we don’t have time to do other things, that doesn’t matter.”

The Sweeneys of Bensalem, Pennsylvania — Owen and Rachel and their five children, ages 12-20 — place the crèche either under the tree or next to it. “It’s a very important symbol to teach the kids what Christmas is about,” Rachel said. “It keeps the focal point of our living room on the birth of Jesus.”

Youngest daughter Ava likes to put everything in the crèche. During the season, she will “sit there and move the figures around,” said her mother, who also likes to contemplate the Nativity scene. The family’s crèche remains on display until the feast of the Three Kings.

The Sweeneys like to bring a piece of the church crèche home after Christmas Mass, when the family spends some time praying before the parish Nativity scene. “We always bring hay from there to our manger,” Rachel said.

In West Hartford, Connecticut, the Christmas crèche was a special part of Blythe Kaufman’s own childhood memories: Her mother collected crèches from different countries. “During the Advent season, we’d decorate the house with them,” said Kaufman, founder of the “Children’s Rosary” prayer movement.

“That developed a love in my own heart for crèches.” Today, with her own family of two sons and one daughter ages 11 to 18, she continues the tradition of collecting crèches from other countries.

The family has a Nativity display from the Holy Land and two from Haiti, one pounded from metal, with the Wise Men approaching and a star above the stable, and another made of wood. They also have Nativity sets from South American and African countries.

The Kaufman children love setting up the crèches during Advent. The two younger Kaufman children, who were adopted, have a Russian heritage and enjoy the international aspect of collecting Nativities from another part of the world.

As their mother said, “It becomes a tradition associated with Christmas that creates a love in your heart for the season and what it’s about. When you’re putting the crèches up, you can see this season is about the birth of Christ. It puts you into the right spirit when you weave it into your home.”

She added: “You’re doing the things to keep your mind and heart in anticipation of the birth of Our Lord.”

Both these families are right in step with what the Vatican’s Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy says about reverencing the Christmas Crib: “Their preparation, in which children play a significant role, is an occasion for the members of the family to come into contact with the mystery of Christmas, as they gather for a moment of prayer or to read the biblical accounts of the Lord’s birth.”
In his classic 1952 Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, Jesuit Father Francis X. Weiser observed the crèche “should be a cherished part of the Christmas celebration in every family. … It presents to the children in a beautiful way the central event which we commemorate on this great feast. Thus it assumes the character of a religious shrine in the houses of the faithful during the Christmas season.”

“The basis of every kind of crèche is evangelical: to teach the importance of the Incarnation with things you know in your culture,” explained Father Tim Goldrick, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and an avid collector of crèches.

“In my collecting I was purposely international, looking for crèches that could only come from a particular country or tribal area because of the materials used, or how it was represented, or what the costumes were,” he said. He offered examples of Nativity scenes set in a tropical rainforest, with rubber trees replacing palms and animals native to the tropical region; one encased in a steel drum; a simple one put together from nails that were “clothed”; one appearing in a pueblo setting; and another showcasing a mariachi band dressed in Mexican costume serenading the Holy Family at the manger.

“People can get very creative,” Father Goldrick said of the settings. He described how a woman from a nearby town always fashions the crèche out of a loaf of bread and uses store-bought figures for the scene. The setting becomes a reminder that “Bethlehem” means “House of Bread” in Hebrew and that the Bread of Life was born in Bethlehem.

The Moravian tradition around Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, fosters “a giant Christmas tableau people make in their homes from scratch,” Father Goldrick said, “placing the Nativity smack in the middle of their own region. It’s a similar principle of the Neapolitan crèche.”

“It’s beautiful how different cultures represent the Nativity scene,” Kaufman agreed. The Kaufmans keep the small Nativity scene from Peru on display all year long; it is “where we gather to pray the Rosary all year long,” she said.

Through her collecting and sharing of this special tradition, she said, “I hope I am also passing on that same love of the tradition of the crèches and collecting them as a way to see how people from different parts of the world represent the birth of Our Lord.”

Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.



 St. Francis and the Nativity

The custom of the Nativity began with St. Francis of Assisi in Greccio, Italy, on Christmas Eve 1223, when he set up a Bethlehem scene complete with live animals.

The saint’s biographer, Thomas de Celano, told of the friars and all the people of the area gathering with “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 cliff 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 (who was a deacon, not a priest) preached “about the nativity of the poor King and the humble town of Bethlehem.”

From that time on, this favored sacramental, for that’s what a crèche or Nativity scene is, has grown in popularity around the world. People see them in their parish churches during the Christmas season, and many also have a Nativity scene in their homes.  — Joseph Pronechen



“The crib is a school of life where we can learn the secret of true joy. This does not mean having many things, but in feeling loved by the Lord, in making oneself a gift for others and loving one another. Look at the crib: The Madonna and St. Joseph do not seem to be a very fortunate family — they had their first child in the midst of great hardships; yet they are full of deep joy, because they love each other, help each other, and above all they are certain that in their story there is the work of God, who became present in the little Jesus.” — Pope Benedict XVI, 2012