Happy Christmas

Christmas Day: Christmas Crib/Creche

Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

published 1931

Crib Creche Canada

[A French emigre family in Quebec assembling their nativity scene]

[They carried the figures] carefully to the window where she was making the scene. The Holy Family must be placed first, under a little booth of fir branches. The Infant was not in His Mother’s arms, of course, but lay rosy and naked in a little straw-lined manger, in which he had crossed the ocean. The Blessed Virgin wore no halo, but a white scarf over her head. She looked like a country girl, very naïve, seated on a stool, with her knees well apart under her full skirt, and very large feet. St Joseph, a grave old man in brown, with a bald head and wrinkled brow, was placed opposite her, and the ox and the ass before the manger.

“Those are all that go inside the stable,” Cecile explained, “except the two angels. We must put them behind the manger; they are still watching over Him.”

[Later that evening, the young boy Jacques comes to the house]
“I have a surprise for you,” he said. “It is for the creche, for the little Jesus.”

When she took off the paper, she held in her hand Jacques’ well-known carved beaver [his cherished possession].

“He isn’t new… but he could keep the baby warm. I take him to bed with me when I’m cold sometimes, and he keeps me warm.

Madame Pommier’s sharp ears had overheard this conversation, and she touched Cecile with the end of her crutch. “Certainly, my dear, put it there with the lambs, before the manger. Our Lord died for Canada as well as for the world over there, and the beaver is our special animal.”


This is a strange and wonderful book, and the mystery is how Cather manages to make the religion in it all-encompassing, and sometimes rather harsh, but not too infuriating or sentimental. The description of Christmas in the book is very charming.

Later in the book Cecile is trying to get a leading cleric in the city of Quebec to do something for Jacques, the poor neglected child above. The Bishop says
‘Compose yourself, my child. We can do something. Suppose I were to send him to the Brothers’ school in Montreal and prepare him for the Seminary?’ 
She shook her head despondently. “He could never learn Latin. He is not a clever child; but he is good. I don’t think he would be happy in a school.” 
“Schools are not meant to make boys happy, Cecile, but to teach them to do without happiness.”

[SLIGHT BUT CHEERING SPOILER FOR CHRISTMAS: he does avoid this unhappy and bleak fate]

For more on this book see this entry here, and Christine Poulson’s one too.

The picture is of a beautiful crib/creche at a religious community near where I live: while self-evidently modern, it IS French, and shows some slightly unexpected animals…

With thanks, again, to TKR for the photo, and to Chrissie for the recommendation.


  1. Have a lovely Christmas, Moira, and all the best for 2018! And thanks for sharing this one with us. It's difficult to get a Christmas scene right, so that it's not, as you say, too sentimental, and doesn't go on too much about religion. I think this one does it well.

    1. Thank you Margot, and very best wishes to you for Christmas and for 2018.

  2. Moira: Your post made me think of Christmas's past when my children were young and then back to when I was a boy. A creche was important to us and made faith real. Christmas is the time of the year we are emotional about what matters in our lives. All the best.

    1. Thank you Bill for those lovely words and memories. A happy Christmas to you - and to your new grandchild who must be making this a particularly special time. And all the best for 2018.

  3. The creche scene in the image is lovely. I suppose Christmas is over for you as it is almost over for us but I hope it was a good one and that the rest of the holidays will be wonderful.

    1. Our Xmas is always very busy at first, with lots of family, and then things calm down and we get a peaceful time, which is where we are now. so yes, all is well. Hope you are having a good holiday - Happy Christmas, and all the best for 2018.

  4. Our creche is a rather silly but sweet, crocheted by the spousal unit's grandmother sometime in the '60's, I think, from a mail-order pattern. One of our cats finds Baby Jesus irresistible and keeps walking off with him.

    Merry Christmas (a day late) to you and yours, Moira, and best wishes for the New Year.

    1. A crèche/crib should always be personal & specific if possible - my children made one out of wood which is very much treasured.
      Happy Christmas to you and yours Shay, and with high hopes for 2018 for all of us..

  5. I wish you a lovely Christmas somewhat too late, and... oh dear, I'm not sure I should be saying this, but in the hope that you will be taking it in the right way, as part of an interesting discussion rather than complaining: I have just finished "Christmas with the Savages", which I ordered because you praised it so highly - and found it rather painful reading. In spite of the fact that I could clearly see that the narrator was constructed as a self-satisfied little prig, I couldn't help identifying with her to some extent and feeling sorry for her. Oh, how I would have hated all that noise and all that chaos, and how it annoys me that the grown-ups are so incompetent! I can well see how the parents would have wanted to keep the children at a distance, since they are so wild and noisy, but it isn't as if the children themselves are having a particularly good time either. It makes childhood (at least these children's childhood) seem like something messy and ugly and charmless and painful that you have to endure - and it makes me want to cry for all the children who didn't get to enjoy the magic of childhood.

    And I thought it was terrible that the housekeeper's dead brother's boomerang was smashed by the horrible uncle!

    I re-read what you written about it and felt that there was obviously something wrong with me (too sentimental? too literal-minded? no sense of humour? a self-satisfied prig?) since I couldn't find it funny. And then I thought of a book about a child at Christmas which I truly loved, namely "The Children at Green Knowe" by Lucy Boston - and found that you had a post (two actually) on it and didn't like it at all! And that you expressed something similar to what I just said here about not being able to like it and not getting why some people do.

    So I am trying to figure out what the factor is that makes one person like Boston's book and not Clive's and vice versa, and am actually finding the conumdrum rather interesting, although I am getting nowhere.

    1. Oh Birgitta, that's so interesting, and I'm so sorry you didn't like it! It's fascinating that people with shared and similar tastes can suddenly disagree so much (and of course so friendlily...). If you come up with a conclusion as to why we react so differently, do share it. I wonder how much it is to do with our own childhoods? I'm going to try to work out a theory of my own...

    2. I thought at first that it might be a cultural difference - that I didn't like this book because I am Swedish, that you have to be British to appreciate it. But I read almost only British books (it's my job, you could say, I am a lecturer in English at a Swedish university) and most of the books I love are British. As is "The Children at Green Knowe", which I loved so much that after I had read it I went to see Boston's house - which is EXACTLY as in the book. (Or at least was then, it is some ten years ago now that I was there.)

      But then I read up on Mary Clive, and had a kind of epiphany. I realised that if you know about Clive and her priviliged background, then you might appreciate the fact that she debunks the glamourous, upper-class setting by her deadpan way of describing it in this book - just as she apparently described her fellow debutantes as super dowdy and her upper-class suitors as practically malformed in a quite funny way. (Every text about her on the Internet quotes the same phrases about this.) And seen from that point of view it would seem funny, I suppose. But I read it as a children's book and from a child's point of view, and I felt how unprotected these children were from the harassment and bullying of the stronger ones, and I could feel how unhappy I would have been as a child in this situation, and I wanted to smack the children for being so beastly and the adults for not caring.

      In "The Children at Green Knowe" you can sort of figure out that Tolly has experienced more or less this kind of exposure to the survival of the strongest (and the bullying of those who are not so) as well as the same lack of care from the adults, since we learn that his mother is dead, that his father has re-married and does not seem particularly interested in his son, and that Tolly has been shunted off to a boarding-school where he has also had to spend all of his holidays so far. When he arrives at Green Knowe he has no real hopes for a wonderful Chistmas, only the kind of wariness that is typical of a bullied child, and I think this is beautifully done because it is never stated outright, just indicated. And then his holidays actually do turn out to be magic - again in a quiet, understated way, which I find heart-rendering. I read the book to my son at Christmas many years ago, when he must have been roughly Tolly's age, and we were living in a big, old house with plenty of atmosphere - and his father and older sister had gone away on Boxing Day so there were only the two of us in the house and it was snowing heavily outside, and he loved it too.

      But it probably also has something to do with your own childhood. I was very protected, never really away from my parents, never had to fend for myself among a group of not-so-friendly children, and my parents always took care to make Christmas magic to me and my siblings, which might explain why the little girl's experiences in this book seemed so terrible to me. (And this might of course be a cultural difference.)

      I would be very interested in your theory, Moira. And I might add that I have also just finished "The Town in Bloom" by Dodie Smith, which I also got on your recommendation, and which I loved.

    3. There's a lot to think about there, and I am convinced we all bring our own thoughts to books, far more than we think we do. First reading a book at a certain age is part of that, but also our own life experiences, our own terrors and traumas. But it is also unpredictable: being bullied yourself might make you either hate or love a book about these matters.
      My own life experiences couldn't be more different from Mary Clive OR the Green Knowes - I am still trying to work out why one appealed to me so much and the other didn't...
      I will keep thinking, please do the same and we can discuss again - for sure some other books will come up like this! So glad you liked Town in Bloom, such a charmer for me (though I'm sure many would consider it slight...)


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