An Teaghlach Naofa

Without Christ There Would Be No Christmas

In my early teens, one of my favourite poems was “A Christmas Childhood” by Patrick Kavanagh, perhaps Ireland’s best known Christmas poem. Kavanagh spent his Christmas childhood on the family farm in Mucker, Co. Monaghan. His nostalgic poem describes how life is transformed on the farm into a magical experience at Christmas. Everywhere he looks he sees imagery of the nativity story through his six year old eyes. We can sense his excitement that it’s Christmas and the rich gift of faith given to him by God. The beauty of the poem is that it’s not about Santa coming, it’s a about Christ. The mystery of the nativity of Our Lord, is something that stays with many of us from childhood. When we look into a crib, it often brings back memories of Christmas times in our own childhood. Each of us has a Christmas poem written in our heart.

Knitted Christmas CribIn his Christmas letter to children of the world in 1994, St John Paul said “Dear children, as I write to you, I am thinking of when many years ago I was a child like you. I too, used to experience the peaceful feelings of Christmas, and when the star of Bethlehem shone, I would hurry to the crib together with the other boys and girls and to relive what happened 2000 years ago in Palestine. We children expressed our joy mostly in song. How beautiful and moving are the Christmas carols which in the tradition of every people are sung around the crib! What deep thoughts they contain and above all what joy and tenderness they express about the Divine Child who came into the world that holy night”. And he said “I can almost see you: you are setting up the crib at home, in the parish, in every corner of the world, recreating the surroundings and the atmosphere in which the Saviour was born”. A beautiful thought. Is it true of Ireland today?

In years gone by, almost every catholic family in Ireland had a crib. Other Christmas traditions in Ireland included: the youngest child putting the baby Jesus into the crib on Christmas morning, placing a lighted candle in the window to welcome the Holy Family, holy water on a sill for the Holy Family to bless the home as they walk by, the Christmas candle lit by the youngest son, three extra places set at the table for the Holy Family. In many homes, the crib remained up all year round.

Walking through town today, the streets are busy with shoppers, in every shop window lights and baubles twinkle. People go to and fro mentally ticking off their Christmas to do lists. Everyone seems in a rush. It’s a time of preparation and anticipation; of families getting together, loved ones returning home and warm memories of those in our lives who made Christmas so very special and will hopefully celebrate Christmas in heaven. Yet, there is an emptiness to it all, a sense of urgency for souls. How many people have, ‘go to confession’, or ‘bring the children to confession’ on their Christmas list? How many will buy the best gift of all for their family, a mass bouquet? How many have blessed themselves with holy water, or said a prayer today? How many have stopped to pray the Angelus, or the Divine Mercy. How many have gone to mass, or paid a visit to the Blessed Sacrament? Or stopped to really give to the poor? How many will pray the rosary this evening with their family when they return home laden with Christmas shopping? Or read scripture? On a street corner, a family take time choosing a real Christmas tree. The children are smiling, wearing Christmas jumpers and woolly hats and gloves. Will they also take the time to make a crib?

I have three cribs. One a little wooden stable that I set my parents’ crib figures into albeit Joseph has lost his finger, the donkey is a little chipped, the cow has lost an ear and a King has his head glued back on after a camel bit it off. When it’s finished it looks idyllic and is the most precious. The second, is a crib made of olive wood from Bethlehem, I came across after my first trip into Gaza and in need of some peace after the horror of how families were “living” there. Opting for fair trade rather than the designated shop, I sent my guardian angel to find the right crib. It was made by a carpenter called Joseph in Manger St! It’s beautiful and each year it sits in the foyer of a nursing home covered in holly and ponsietta. My third crib is en route from Holland. I saw it in a shop window near St Peter’s Square in Rome in September and sourced it online for a fraction of the price. One of my favourite cribs is a knitted crib in St Mary’s Church in Belfast, the oldest catholic church in the city. If you happen to be in Belfast, call and visit the live crib in the grotto also featuring Henry the donkey, Emily and Buttercup the goats and friends. Where is your favourite crib?

It was St Francis of Assisi who popularised the Christmas crib when he brought Bethlehem to Greccio in 1223. People and animals featured in his crib, described in the writings of St Bonaventure. “The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices and the venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God, stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis”. It is said that the Infant Child appeared in the crib and lit up the whole scene with His divine light and that St Francis held Him in his arms. Loving animals as he did, St Francis urged farmers to provide their donkeys and oxen with extra rations of corn and hay for reverence of the Infant Child. By the end of the century every church in Italy had a crib. The tradition grew across Europe and the world and such was the interest in the Greccio crib, that even Kings of Europe had their own superfluous cribs. In Sicily and Malta, live cribs remain very popular. The earliest report of a crib seems to be In 400 AD, Pope Sixtus III had a crib built in Rome.

How things have changed in Europe. Cultures are increasingly intolerant of Christmas. Advertising campaigns speak of happy holidays, seasons greetings and winter tide. In Berlin and Brussels the Christmas market is now Winterfest and Winter Pleasures, not respectively. In Dundee, Christmas celebrations are the ‘winter night light festival’. Here in Ireland in 2007, RTE took issue with the term “crib” in a radio advert and cribs are no longer considered politically correct in many workplaces. Last week in France, local councillors were told to take down Christmas cribs in public buildings. Robert Menard, a town mayor, says he will defy the order and keep the crib up in his town. Last month, in Ireland the Carrauntoohil cross was cut down and a statue of Our Lady removed from a hospital and replaced with a Buddha. In a Co. Derry chapel last Christmas, the Infant Child was stolen from the crib and thrown in a ditch. This year, Google and Irish newspapers tip the game “Oujia”, based on the Ouija board, to be a sell out for Christmas.

In 1985, the US Supreme Court ruled that nativity scenes in public areas violate separation of church and state unless they comply with “The Reindeer Rule”. More recently, the Christmas tree in Boston was re-named the holiday tree. And in Pittsburg, this year, Christmas is “sparkle day”. Across the world, it seems as if there is a war on Christmas. Opposition to Christmas and to Christ, is nothing new – even the baby Jesus experienced it when Herod sought to kill Him.

Pope Francis in his 2013 Urbi et Orbi message said,” I take up the song of the angels who appeared to the shepherds in Bethlehem on the night when Jesus was born. It is song which unites heaven and earth, giving praise and glory to heaven, and the promise of peace to earth and all its people. I ask everyone to share in this song; it is a song for every man or woman who keeps watch through this night, who hopes for a better world, who cares for others while humbly seeking to do his or her duty. Glory to God!”

This year, let us give Glory to God in our homes, our schools, our churches, our workplaces and our businesses. Let us make an extra special effort with our cribs and encourage children to really get involved in making the crib at home. Let us talk to every child we meet this Christmas about the baby Jesus and the nativity. Last year, a little boy called Edik who lives with his Mum and Dad and his brother Oleg in Tipperary, made a lego crib. Edik called his crib “Without Christ there would be no Christmas” and sent in a photo as part of a Christmas Art Competition. All the best ideas come from children! So here’s hoping that children across Ireland will get creative and help make beautiful cribs. Why not enter your family crib in the nicest crib competition and win a voucher for a trip to Bethlehem and the Holy Land. There is also a prize trip for the nicest crib in a school, church, hospital or community group. Please share the poster. If you want a copy to print or put in your local paper we can email it to you.

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