Photo: Chiara Bertoglio

I have always been a very Christmassy person. It must be something in my genes, since some of my relatives also seem to think that a year of 365 Christmases would be a definite improvement. 

Setting-up the Christmas decorations is a very complicated job, which I usually do with my father; this year, he lent me his moral support only, as he was recovering from a minor accident. 

The Christmas tree shines and glistens with lights and baubles; decorations in red and gold crowd almost every corner of our home; and on my grand piano (conveniently turned into a large, black, smooth surface) a small collection of Nativity scenes is found. There is a Holy Family in black ebony, the gift of our family doctor (who died several years ago); he spent many months in Africa, volunteering for the local people, and my parents supported his efforts with some of their savings. 

There is a cute Colombian Holy Family (in this case complete with the accompanying ox and donkey), the gift of other missionaries spending their lives in that South American country; and a whole host of music-making angels (most welcome in a musicians’ family), some of which look rather battered after the thousand games I played with them in my childhood. 

In another room, a large creche is my pride and joy. Here, the Holy Family is sheltered by a little hut, made by my father when I was a small child with the bark of a pine tree collected on the mountains. It looks very fragile, yet it has survived tens of Christmases and is always the first thing I unpack when making the creche. 

Inside it, and still empty (until Christmas Eve), there is Jesus’ cradle. This is another beautiful and tender idea of my father, who once found a tiny nest – possibly discarded by its winged owners and builders – and decided it was a nice place for the baby Jesus to rest. 

In front of the hut are the pilgrims, paying homage to the Child. The pole position is always occupied by the most battered of our little statues. It represents a very old and poor man, and this is quite fitting, since it is also one of the oldest statues of the creche. It came from my father’s family, and it must have at least eighty years. It is blackened by the smoke of the carbon stove they used during the war, and so it has lived a time of suffering and pain. My grandparents made the creche with their young son, my father, also in order to spread some light, magic and hope in a world very different from a child’s dreams. 

As a child I did not like that old statue. It seemed to disfigure the nicety of the creche. But my father always insisted that it should be very close to the Holy Family, because it represented a poor old man and because it was so battered. I think this taught me something about the position that the elderly or disabled should occupy in our society. 

Then there’s a host of musicians, including both angels and shepherds. One year we did not remember that we had already bought a shepherd playing the accordion, so we bought another; thus, we have twin brothers, both playing the accordion with the same bemused face. 

To the right, there is a small village. Here too, there are tiny houses which have been part of our creche as long as I can remember, together with new additions, the most remarkable being a couple of casite. These are circular buildings made of stone, not unlike the more famous trulli of Alberobello; the casite, however, are found in Istria, my mother’s homeland. She had to flee her country after the war, abandoning her beloved landscapes, traditions, friends and milieu (as well as her family’s own, equally beloved creche) and finding poverty and marginalization in today’s Italy. These casite, built by a Croatian friend of hers (thus representing also a reconciliation between ethnicities which used to fight each other) are therefore a small piece of Istria, a reminder of our origins in a distant place, as well as a kind of “redemption” for the suffering experienced by my mother, her family and her people.

There is also a small fake river, flanked in turn by pebbles collected in Istria; and there is a particular kind of innocence in the tiny lakes made with pocket mirrors. My father is an engineer and a researcher; but I find it very touching that he still enjoys this childlike creation of a world in which imagination, fantasy and religion all blend together. 

Indeed, the creche is not only a fascinating little world; it is also a fundamental part of the Italian Catholic experience of Christmas. We pray together, gathering by the creche; on Christmas eve, the tiny statue of the newborn Jesus will be placed in the nest, while the family pray by candlelight. The spectacle of adults and grown-ups enjoying a seemingly childlike play is a powerful reminder of the deep meaning of the Incarnation: the Almighty bending Himself to our human condition, and becoming a child who enjoyed a child’s games, who liked the beauty of our world, who craved a hug from his Mother. 

It is not by chance, therefore, that Pope Francis has written a Letter on the importance of the creche; in fact, it is possibly one of the most Christian aspects of Christmas, and one which never fails to enchant, to enamour and to embellish our experience of Christmas.

Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Italy. Visit her website.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is a New Zealand journalist with a special interest in family issues. She began her working life as a secondary school teacher but always fancied the life of the scribe. Too late, she...