New York in an Advent State of Mind

A Christmas memory of long ago has remained vivid in my mind's eye: I'm standing in a wig-gly line of other preschoolers on Christmas Day, waiting to hold the Christ Child, delivered from the life-size Nativity scene by the priest.

I even remember how large the baby seemed and how heavy. I was thrilled to be able to hold him. Although I'm not certain who I thought the Child really was, I knew he was very holy and very important.

Since that time, I rarely pass a crèche without pausing to thank God for sending his Son — and/or sometimes for childhood itself. Most Catholic churches in America set up crèches at Christmas, usually waiting till just after midnight Mass to place the Child in the manger as the choir sings “O, Little Town of Bethlehem.”

In Italy, from Christmas until Epiphany, families travel from church to church to admire the crèche (presepio in Italian) in each. Adults, too, are delighted by the features each one has, although their special effects are indeed modest — and perhaps more charming — these days. Sometimes lights play on a silver-paper river or sunrise brightens and fades to sunset, followed by the moon and stars on a dark sky, as the town lights turn on and off. Entire villages are usually shown, never mind the leap of centuries from the Holy Family, shepherds and Three Kings to a host of 18th-century villagers going about daily life.

Should you worry that celebrating the secular world along with the Nativity is not appropriate, read G.K. Chesterton's Spirit of Christmas, in which he “turns calmly from holly to the Hypostatic Union, from turkey and plum pudding to the Persons of the Trinity, and then back again. … Such surprising juxtapositions are very Catholic, evidence of a sacramental mind.” I'm quoting this from another exceptional Nativity book, Cradle of Redeeming Love, by John Saward (Ignatius Press).

Although I'm easily won over by even the most lopsided papier mâché reproductions, I'm especially thrilled by the most beautiful Nativity scene I have ever laid my eyes upon: the annual display of the Neapolitan Baroque Crèche and Christmas Tree at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's here thanks to a generous donor, Loretta Hines Howard, who indeed deserves mention.

Maybe it holds a special place in my heart because it's from one of my favorite places in the world — Naples, the Italian city most enchanted with Christmas.

Mystical Attraction

The figures in this crèche, like those in any fine work of art, are defined beautifully to the last detail. Each angel, each cherub, floats in glorious descent from the tree to the Holy Family, reflecting individual joy and wonder. Even oxen, donkeys and camels look on with knowing eyes. Taken together, the display has a mystical appeal; it brings the observer in and then leads him beyond. “Come and see what the Lord has made known unto us,” the work seems to say.

Even holiday crowds at the museum won't interfere with a quiet prayer in front of the Holy Family. In fact, the exquisite Medieval Gallery, where the tree radiates its own brand of yuletide splendor, is often hushed, as visitors listen to the soft music of Christmas oratorios.

For its part the crèche, a masterpiece of 18th-century Naples, comes from the tradition of noble families' commissioning leading artists to create a miniature world for them at Christmas. This was still the age of Baroque, so swirling robes and mighty wings swoop down the angel tree in the excitement of Christmas itself.

The Bourbon King Ferdinand IV of Naples and his Queen Maria Carolina, rulers of the largest kingdom in Italy, were known to enjoy dressing up their presepio figures. Jewels and precious stones were added, and some of the fabric was part of the royal-wardrobe material.

During the 18th century, some 400 churches in Naples annually set up a presepio, and many private homes devoted a full room to it. In fact, sometimes an entire house was decorated with different village scenes; concerts of Nativity music serenaded the guests who strolled from room to room. Less-affluent citizens devised ways of making their own delightful, imaginative figures with papier mâché and scraps of cloth.

At the top of the tree, a starburst radiates light. Around it, angelic hosts “from the realms of glory wing their flight o'er all the earth.” As John Saward describes it: “Through the Christ-Mass mystery, the Christmas mystery is ever in our midst.” Every Mass, in fact, celebrates the gift of the Christ Child to all mankind.

But it is here, somehow, in the heart of the city that never sleeps, that the words of the favorite crèche-side carol come to mind and move me in a special way:

O morning stars, together, proclaim the holy birth.

And praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth.

Barbara Coeyman Hults writes from New York City.