Saturday, December 24, 2011

Thoughts on Christmas Eve

One of the things I like to do Christmas Eve is contemplate the strange blending of present and past that happens this time of year (Dickens had it right).

As I write this, I'm looking at our creche set up on the table. It represents many things, some obvious, some not. Of course, it's foremost an expression of our faith. As a Christian, I do believe in the miraculous birth of Christ as told in Scripture.

The Sacred

Our creche has all the traditional elements -- a shepherd, three Wise Men, stable animals, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. But being somewhat familiar with Scripture, I know that this scene is actually a composite, that probably never existed, and technically, we're putting it up at the wrong time, anyway. (Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the Roman tax census. Tax time for the Romans, like for us, took place in April, not December.)

Although a creche traditionally has them gathered together, the Wise Men and the shepherds didn't really arrive at the same time. According to Luke, the shepherds came shortly after the birth. In Matthew, the Wise Men arrive sometime within the first two years.

How do we know?

Matthew 2:13-23 tells of how Herod, based on what the Magi had told him, had every male child two and under killed. If Jesus was a new-born, then most likely Herod would have just have his soldiers look for one, or kill males six months or under. (The Slaughter of the Innocents is a part of the Christmas story that often gets overlooked -- but it's important.)

Tradition says that there were three Wise Men (or Magi), that one was African, and that their names were Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. But Scripture doesn't say any of that -- Matthew just mentions Wise Men, plural. Could have been any number from two on up. There are no names, and no nationalities -- only that they came from the East.

So our creche represents not only the Christmas story at it appears in the Gospels, but also as its been modified by two centuries of tradition.

The Secular

Our creche also represents some things for our family, too. When we first moved to Orange, the town's summer Street Festival featured many local craftsman. This creche was purchased from a woodworker who lived in the area. The Street Festival has long since degenerated to out-of-town food vendors and purveyors of cheap novelty items. So this display reminds us of a time now past.

The design is sparse, and even new the colors were muted, suggesting age. Twenty years after the fact, the wood and paint have accumulated an authentic patina of age, making the set even more appealing (in my opinion).

One of the reasons we purchased this particular creche was because we had young children. We knew they would be tempted to play with a creche, and so we wanted a set that was durable enough for young hands. The creche is still here, intact, and it sparks fond memories of Christmases past in our now-grown children.

It's a pretty simple decoration -- and one that's probably not worth more than we paid for it all those years ago. But for what it represents, our primitive wooden creche is priceless to us.

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