Wednesday, December 25, 2019
As Tiny Tim in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol famously exclaimed, “A Merry Christmas to us all; God bless us, every one!”
Today I’m putting politics aside (for the most part) and sharing a Christmas story I wrote for a literary gathering in the East Village six years ago.
CRÈCHE HUNTING IN NEW YORK CITY
H. Reynolds Butler
One drizzly evening last month I decided to pop out and buy a crèche—or nativity scene—depicting the story of the birth of Christ when Joseph and a very pregnant Mary had to travel by foot and donkey from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in the census, but there was no room at the inn so they had to stay in a manger. Biblical accounts vary but that’s what I remember from Sunday school.
The only nativity scene I owned was a small polymer-molded souvenir I had gotten in the gift shop of Santa Maria in Trastevere when I made the pilgrimage to Rome for the 2000th Jubilee anniversary of Christ’s birth. I also wanted to see what the Romans had done to gussy up their city for the Jubilee.
I still love that little crèche and display it year-round—sometimes on the ample dashboard of my ancient station wagon—but I wanted something a little more substantial this year.
I’m not sure what possessed me to go out that particular night: maybe all of the “holiday” decorations materializing in the city, or maybe the recent conversation I had had with my sister, trying to track down the manger scene my parents used to display at Christmastime when we were growing up.
That crèche was a modest but tasteful little set-up: a sturdy cardboard faux-wood manger—slightly smaller than a breadbox—that appeared from a distance to be made of rustic timbers. A freeform flap in front folded down to reveal the interior and to provide a flat surface for displaying the nativity figures. Bits of real straw were glued to the roof and scattered around the inside.
The hand-painted figures were appropriately reverent: Mary and Joseph with solemn, adoring gazes; the baby Jesus depicted as an actual newborn babe, unlike some nativity scenes where the Holy Infant appears to be a plump rambunctious two-year-old. The Three Wise Men—also known as the Magi or the Three Kings—wore flowing majestic robes, good for riding camels through the desert in winter. Two sweet young shepherds, one with a lamb slung over his shoulders, wore expressions of amazement. A couple of cows, some sheep and a donkey rounded out the cast of characters.
The position of the figures changed frequently, depending upon how often my four siblings and I would wander through the living room and start messing with them, usually leaving the figures in rather inappropriate tableaux: Mary and Joseph gazing down reverently at the donkey while the Holy Infant reposed in the shadows; or all of the grown-ups shoved into a random clump in the back while all of the animals had gathered around Jesus in a friendly little cluster. Sometimes all of the figures would end up scattered around as if Bethlehem had just suffered a category seven earthquake.
The whole scene was illuminated by a single orange-yellow five-watt incandescent Christmas tree bulb hidden up in the rafters, which emitted a faint burning smell, and—in retrospect—an alarming amount of heat.
My sister had become, over the years, the de facto family archivist and curator after my parents’ divorce and my mother’s impetuous moves of self-discovery on her way to becoming an artist.
Not especially devout, my sister professed not to know the whereabouts of the manger scene and I wondered if she had thrown it out. Or maybe it was just one of those childhood artifacts, treasured in retrospect but left behind in an attic or tossed in the trash by an insensitive or practical relative.
Not sure where to start my crèche hunt, I headed over to a couple of nearby drugstores where I had noticed some of the aisles given over to “seasonal” items, a catch-all term for the ephemeral junk purveyed at every conceivable holiday, sometimes simultaneously: St. Patrick’s Day-Easter-Mother’s Day, followed by Halloween-Thanksgiving-Christmas-Hanukkah-New Year’s-Valentine’s Day.
The drugstores had an array of candy canes, Christmas tree lights, and ornaments—including some puzzlingly incongruous items like small glitter-covered women’s high-heel pumps—but were devoid of anything relating directly to the birth of Christ, except for a few angels and some greeting cards that did actually wish people a “Merry Christmas” as opposed to the bland and generic “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays.”
Which made me wonder: when did wishing someone a “Merry Christmas” at Christmastime become taboo? Obviously, a confluence of various forces had been at work for decades: the creeping secularization of America; the forced removal of nativity scenes from public spaces; and the way gift giving at Christmas—in honor of Christ’s birthday—had metastasized into an annual orgy of materialism.
Nevertheless, I knew that somewhere in the city there had to be manger scenes for sale. I just didn’t know where to look.
I headed over to 34th Street (as in “Miracle On . . .”) assuming that Macy’s would surely have some crèches. After wading through acres of perfume and jewelry on the ground floor, I rode the wonderfully antiquated one-hundred-and-eleven-year-old wooden escalators all the way to the top floor, arriving at “Holiday Lane,” Macy’s vast array of dazzling ornaments and beautifully decorated trees. Pleasant instrumental arrangements of actual Christmas carols were playing in the background—a welcome change from the ditties about snowmen, Santa, and reindeer.
I soon discovered an array of ornaments in the form of manger scenes, angels, the Magi and bejeweled crosses, as well as disembodied praying hands and flaming hearts. Their selection of nativity scenes was surprisingly extensive . . . and sometimes in questionable taste. One of the oddest featured Santa Clause—just Santa—kneeling next to the Baby Jesus. I searched for a companion piece featuring Mary and Joseph out for a joyride in Santa’s sleigh but couldn’t find one.
Another crèche, for $280, featured a gargantuan guardian angel, her huge wings enveloping the Holy Family during their flight into Egypt to escape King Herod’s paranoid decree that all baby boys in Bethlehem be killed, fearing that the newly born “King of the Jews” he had heard about might someday try to usurp his throne.
They also offered a musical snow globe that featured the Holy Family engulfed in a gentle snowstorm while a barely intelligible rendition of “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful” plinked anemically in the background. For $50, I would have expected the music to be slightly more robust.
There were several inexpensive crèches in the traditional style I was seeking, but they were cheap in quality, too, and didn’t include the shepherds and wise men.
All of the crèches, ironically, were made in Communist China.
Since I was in the neighborhood, I decided to visit the K-Mart down the street. No miracles there; just a forest of unnaturally green fake Christmas trees amidst a chaotic jumble of lights, candy canes, Santa hats, wrapping paper, angels dressed as Victorian ladies, and huge inflatable snowmen more appropriate for Halloween.
I was, however, able to locate five different kinds of manger scenes. One, inexplicably, portrayed everyone—including the grown-ups—as plump little children, for a mere $24.99. A more traditional version, for the same price, featured the Holy Family and the Magi but no shepherds.
My favorite was a translucent plastic three-piece, made-in-USA grouping of the Holy Family for $64.99. The two-and-a-half-foot-tall figures of Mary and Joseph were illuminated from within by 60-watt bulbs; the Holy Infant’s fledgling glow created by a single night-light bulb. The instructions on the box helpfully pointed out, “requires straw.”
They also had some musical snow globe crèches—a bargain at $16.99—that plucked out “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” while the Holy Family endured a swarm of green glitter.
I called a friend that night to ask for advice, explaining that I was having a hard time finding a good quality, traditional manger scene. He recommended Scully & Scully at 59th and Park, and a shop in Little Italy called E. Rossi & Co. on Grand St.
It also occurred to me that some of the local churches would be a logical place to look, and maybe the Metropolitan Museum would carry a crèche or two in their gift shop. The museum did, after all, display a majestic twenty-foot tree in the Medieval Sculpture Hall at Christmastime, magnificently adorned with their splendid collection of eighteenth-century Neapolitan angels, cherubs, and crèche figures (irreverently called “creechee” figures by a friend of mine).
I headed out eagerly the next day to continue my crèche hunt. Scully and Scully was a surprise. My friend was apparently unaware of the fact that I am not a millionaire. Many of their crèches were traditional and beautiful, as well they should be, selling for $125 up to $3400.
Continuing uptown to the Metropolitan Museum, I handed over a single penny to gain admission in lieu of the “recommended” fee of $25. Their gift shop did have a lovely reproduction of the Neapolitan Holy Family, which is the centerpiece of their Christmas tree—for $225—but I wanted the whole shebang: Holy Family, Magi, shepherds, and animals.
Apparently snow globe crèches are all the rage these days. They carried an enchanting reproduction of the museum’s Christmas tree in a swirl of iridescent glitter, priced exorbitantly at $110. However, even though Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were front and center in the illustration on the box, it was nevertheless labeled “Angel Tree Musical Snow Globe,” excluding the forbidden word Christmas.
Nearby were several shelves of ornaments in the shape of . . . women’s high-heel pumps.
Heading back downtown, I popped into St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, crowded with throngs of milling tourists and the Catholic faithful. Their small gift shop tucked away in the back of the church carried several beautifully crafted crèches—made in Italy by Fontanini—for $149 and $199. Neither included the Wise Men or shepherds, but additional figures could be purchased separately.
As I was leaving, I happened to see a sign on the wall directing visitors to the main gift shop on 51st Street across from the parish house, so I walked around the corner to see what else they were selling.
Eureka! I had arrived at the mother lode of crèches. Their huge selection was surely the largest in the city. The shop was stocked with an enormous variety of crèches in all styles, prices, and materials. They also carried scads of religious figurines, crucifixes, Advent calendars, and religious ornaments for Christmas trees, as well as reproductions of well-known religious works of art.
The prices for the crèches ranged from less than $20 all the way up to a staggering $40,000 for a complete set of hand-painted nearly life-size figures perched on a ledge high above the cash registers. After making note of several models that especially appealed to me (and my wallet), I headed downtown to see what E. Rossi & Co. in Little Italy was offering.
E. Rossi’s front window displayed a large traditional manger scene (for $1800), flanked by two equally attractive smaller crèches. Inside, the shop was piled high with a bewildering disarray of crèches, figurines, Italian souvenirs, novelties, dishes, cooking implements, sheet music and CDs of Italian music. Barely able to squeeze past the piles of boxes in the aisles, I located the friendly proprietor and learned that most of the crèches were made in Italy by Fontanini, and were sold year-round.
Most of the crèches with a full complement of figures were priced in the neighborhood of $200 to $300, not cheap but bargain basement compared to the more expensive models I had seen elsewhere. Growing finally weary of my hunt, I chose a classic set that included all of the requisite figures and animals, and happily carried home my prize, the figures swaddled in tissue paper and snuggled safely together inside the manger.
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