by GEOFFREY HUMPHRYS
MOST Catholics regard saying a special prayer in front of the Crib, before or after midnight Mass or later on Christmas morning, as an integral part of the Christmas celebration.
We have come to expect a Crib in the church, but it is surprising how many Catholic families do not include a representation of the Crib among their Christmas decorations at home.
The Christmas tree is more popular for decoration, and it, too, has religious significance, but the Crib is the true symbol of Christmas. Its presence among the decorations of a familiar room is the best reminder of the true meaning of Christmas — the birthday of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
After Emperor Constantine's decree made it possible for people to avow themselves as Christians without being thrown to the lions, they emerged from their underground refuges and began to build their churches in daylight. Part of these early churches was the praesepe, or stable-chapel, and it was here at Christmas that the Bethlehem scene was staged.
Later, Nativity plays became the most popular dramatic productions of the Middle Ages, but as time went on they became an excuse for irreverent revelry. The Christmas tree dates back to these times, for it became customary to use an evergreen as part of the scenery. This was intended to symbolise the eternal life offered by the Kingdom of God. At first the trees were decorated with bells, angels and Holy Communion wavers, but these too were desecrated in time.
This type of Christmas decoration was revived by St Boniface, the English patron saint of Germany. He taught his followers that the tree should be regarded as a sign of the everlasting life which is the basis of Christian belief; that the candles were a reminder that Jesus Christ was the true Light of the World; and Christmas gifts on the tree signified that the birth of Jesus was the greatest gift to mankind.
Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's Consort,. remembered the evergreen custom from his childhood and introduced it to Britain for the benefit of his own children.
The idea immediately, appealed to those who saw the royal trees at Windsor, and within a few years many homes adopted the custom. Today some seven million Christmas trees are sold every year and growing them for the seasonal market has become big business.
In recent years, the so-called "Glitter trees" have become popular. They ate longerlasting, the leaves do not fall; they are collapsible and more convenient, but completely out of character with St Boni ace's teaching.
Before we decry the commercialisation of Christmas we oust admit that it provides the means of furnishing a Crib in the home. The figures required for home-constructed Cribs can be obtained quite inexpensively, and are available in wood, rubber, plastic or cardhoard cut-outs. It is also pleasing that many of our large city stores now display a vivid and colourful scene of the first Christmas.
St Francis is responsible for inspiring the custom of setting up a Christmas Crib. When the Nativity plays finally became so sacrilegious that they were banned, he sought a tangible way in which he could display to his followers what he felt about the birth of Jesus Christ, or the Little Babe of Bethlehem, as he affectionately called him.
Accordingly, he wrote the following message to his friend and disciple Giovanni Vellita, from whom he received the Greccio hermitage: "If it now seems good to thee that we should celebrate this feast together, go before me to Greccio and prepare everything as I tell thee.
"I desire to represent the birth of the Child in Bethlehem in such a way that with the eyes of our bodies, we may see all that he suffered from the lack of necessities for a newborn babe, and how he lay in the manger between ox and ass." Giovanni followed the instructions implicitly, with such effect that the scene of the first Christmas was set with painstaking accuracy. Many friars and ordinary folk attended upon invitation from Francis. Solemn songs and hymns were sung in the candlelit atmosphere of the wood.
The manger had been arranged so that the service was celebrated over it, and Francis sang the Gospel and preached
in loving terms of "the little Babe of Bethlehem." lie did this with such poignancy that Giovanni had a vision of the seemingly lifeless Babe in the manger coming to life as Francis approached him.
In the words of St Bonaventure: "Nor was this vision untrue, for by the grace of God, through his blessed servant Francis, Christ was awakened in many hearts where formerly he slept."
None who witnessed this inspired sight ever forgot it. The beautiful simplicity of it became the pattern of all future Cribs. In a few years they were being set up in city market squares and in churches throughout Christendom. They have continued to flourish until the present day, marked by the seal of sincerity and devotion with which St Francis endowed them.
Spanish and Italian families have long constructed Cribs in their homes at Christmas, making them the chief feature of their decorations.
There is now no reason why every Catholic home in Britain should not have a Crib. Its construction is something in which the entire family can take part. It can be made as elaborate as one wishes, depending upon the skills of those doing the work. But often the simplest construction is the most striking, and there is particular appeal about those fashioned entirely by childish hands.