A Christmas Crèche
Advent is here again, and the unusually persistent snow we’ve been having here in Bonn in the climatically moderate Rhineland has added a festive white touch to the view from my living room window. I have therefore set aside my work as a freelance translator for a while to indulge my creative hobbies. The first thing I did was to design my own Christmas cards, thinking that something has to be done about the commercial degradation of what has been the greatest festival of the Christian calendar for over 2,000 years. Because if I see one more card or window display wishing me a happy “Xmas”, I shall track down those responsible and give them an earful. Who is or was this faceless “X”? How did he, she or it usurp the originator Christ from the name of the feast day that once celebrated the birth of the Son of Man, and now marks only the biggest consumer spending spree of the year? Now, I find that if the festive season is a time that should inspire thought as well as provide enjoyment, handicraft is one way of considering its meaning. I had a great deal of time to think about this and other things about 15 years ago, when I spent a whole year in a state mental home. Not so much because I was such an irremediable nut case, but because – after more or less recovering from a severe nervous breakdown – I was stranded with a wrecked marriage and career, no way of earning a living and what seemed like a mountain of debt. I could not afford market prices for rented lodgings, so the clinic kindly allowed me to stay on as a sort of courtesy convalescent until my name finally came up on the Bonn city council’s long waiting list for a municipally subsidized low-rent apartment.
That took many months, during which lack of space in the short-term wards forced the hard-pressed staff to park me in Haus 7 (House 7), a remote section of the sprawling state clinic reserved for seriously disturbed patients with only minimal chances of eventual dismissal and social re-integration. Hopeless senile dementia cases vegetated or sleep-walked in the same block one floor up. My fellow-patients were not quite that far gone, but they were a pitiable lot all the same. Many had sub-normal IQ’s, almost all had underprivileged, poorly educated backgrounds and a few were so infantile or incontinent that the bulky diapers they wore had to be changed constantly. It was a depressing experience at first, though it eventually taught me to recognize the fellow-humanity of handicapped people whom society tends to push away into a far corner and forget – a realisation that made me feel a common bond with them and learn never again to look down on others for superficial, prejudicially motivated reasons.
What kept my self-respect and interest alive more than anything else was the well-equipped ergotherapy section, where a beaming, plump lady with pebbly spectacles taught arts and crafts ranging from finger-painting to macramée crotcheting, and her Austrian pottery instructor presided expertly over great lumps of moist, varicoloured clay, scores of bottled ceramic glazes and an efficient kiln. Pottery fascinated me: to feel shapes growing under my fingers, just as the Great Potter formed the First Couple from the loam of the earth; to guess which glazes would emerge from the kiln in something like the envisaged colours and surface textures – a game of chance to play, a science to be learned, a magical act of creation to master.
I crafted jugs, vases and mugs in many shapes and sizes, a vintage Mercedes SSK sports car complete with banana-branch exhaust manifold and compressor, and a hollow, hen-shaped egg warmer surrounded by egg-holding chickens. With Christmas approaching again, I then started modelling a Nativity crèche for placing under the Christmas tree. My father’s annual Christmas Eve readings of St. Luke’s good tidings were in my mind as Mary, Joseph and the babe in the manger took shape. A winged angel joined them, holding a banner that proclaimed: “For humanity.” Then came the shepherds, told of the Saviour’s birth by the angel while minding their flocks in the field. The three magi soon took their place alongside – a wise sage with flowing beard and starry gown, a red-robed king, a black-skinned sultan from the continent where I was born. Sheep were there too, a small shepherd lad embracing his grinning dog, a camel resting in that peculiar knock-kneed way camels have.
The figures were amateurish, but they were the best I could do and I tried to imagine the feelings of each figure as I formed it. The responses from the teaching staff were very flattering. The chief ergotherapist claimed the crèche for her own Christmas tree. And when I finally left the clinic, they surprised me with a photo album with painstakingly prepared pictures of all the clay objects I had made, especially the crèche figures. Thank you, Frau Heinrich and Herr Seidlitz. I used those same photos to illustrate my home-made Christmas cards this year.
Who knows how much or how little historical truth is hidden beneath the layers of early ecclestiastical politicking and popular medieval myth-making that gave final shape to the story of the Nativity as we know it? Who were the Three Kings, if indeed they ever existed? What star – if any – brought them to Bethlehem from afar? Did an angel really lead the shepherds to the scene? If so, what did the sight of the holy infant in his bed of straw conjure up in their awestruck peasant minds?
Does it matter? The Christmas story has been part and parcel of our western mindset for over two millennia. While allowing the infectious joy expressed by its traditional trappings to seize our imagination, year after year, we can surely grasp its kernel of truth if we study it long enough. This is that the more or less historically credible birth of the man called Jesus, the Anointed – or Christ – gave the world a great religious founder who wished to transform mankind through love, even though his followers often failed to practice what he preached.
So let my crèche figures once more bring this old, old story to life in the tradition-hallowed English of the King James Bible: