The other day, in a brief, frivolous Chunnel-hop to Lille Christmas market, I tried to reclaim a mental map of what was my home town in the late 1950s, with Dad posted to the consulate and me trotting across town to the convent. I found St-Maurice, the huge church where I was confirmed with all the French paraphernalia of white dress, white socks and a box of sugared almonds, dragées, to hammer home the festive aspect of the day.
And in St-Maurice was the most hideous Nativity scene: huge figures made of paper and wire, lit from within like misshapen ghosts. I backed off. Not least because it was in this city that the seed was sown of a long crib interest. For like any French Catholic family, we had santons de Provence: homely little figures of a 19th-century mountain village hastening to the stable, each with a gift and a story. The mayor brings a scroll, the miller a sack, the midwife a cradle; Le Boumian, the brigand, throws down his tiny dagger and swears to rob no more; an old couple plead for the grace of dying on the same day; Le Ravi is the village simpleton, bringing only his upflung arms in amazement. Mary is a broad-faced peasant girl like them; only the Magi are a bit bling.
So when I had children, I wanted this kind of crib but could only find either sentimental baroquery or self-consciously “arty” modern ones. So I wrote about it, and into my life came Michelle Andrée, an elderly widow in Lymington, struggling to pay off her English husband’s debts. She learned the craft at her grandfather’s knee in Provence, and for many years made and installed the santon crib in Notre-Dame-de-France off Leicester Square. In her extreme disabled lameness a “grand miracle” would occur each year as she stayed on her feet for hours to get it right. She taught me all about the santon tradition, including direction that they must be unfired clay – “fragile comme la chair humaine” so breakages would be repaired “avec devotion et joie”.
In my case, avec Copydex. Because having bought a big set from her, we gradually seemed to collect other cribs: my brother brought home gaudy South American ones, some intricate with drunken villagers and the child held aloft like the World Cup. One is from Chile, carved out of a single matchstick. In a local auction Paul found a towering Polish szopka (made of foil, based on Kraków cathedral), and my mother told how in her post-war Polish days pragmatic friends used to pop a picture of Lenin in the doorway over the Nativity scene when Communist Party members were due to come by.
The collection grew, and stretches from Bangladesh to Mexico, Austria to Laos, in every material from silk to Fimo. Some betray dull missionary primness; others are enthusiastically regional, including local animals and facial types. A rough Romanian one is the only crib I have ever seen which puts any thought into what the beasts will eat out of now, with Jesus monopolising the manger. They’ve divided it.
So every year – at first at home, then as it grew in various cathedrals and churches – we exhibit some 130-plus, of all sizes. Frankly, it’s a bit of a nightmare. In packing and unpacking it is never the third shepherd who goes missing, but guess who? The crates need a warehouse. But it has made thousands for charities (entry by voluntary donation, which makes more because people get tearful and thrust tenners in as they leave). Manya cleric has found a text in the more eccentric ones to brighten up the Christmas sermon.
People donate things: the Salisbury Girl Guides transformed a model Stonehenge into a crib. Vernon Parker Rose, a gypsy artist, made a Romany scene with the baby in a bender tent. Roger Hardy made one of beer mats. Sue Dammam, feeling the peasant figures too old-fashioned, created a Cardboard City crib with modern homeless under railway arches; year by year in the 1990s we commissioned from her contemporary visitors, including Quentin Crisp, my Mum, and Denis and Margaret Thatcher.
So the current rash of oh-how-shocking reports of a “hipster Nativity” holds no surprise. Veteran crib-ists know that a Neapolitan Nativity is likely to have a clown with a custard pie and possibly a figure of Mother Teresa or Lady Di, and that in Catalonia a caganer is found defecating in the corner, to evidence the reality of becoming mortal. We take it in our stride. They’re packed away again this year, thank goodness, but one day we will have to get a grip and decide what on earth to do with them.
Libby Purves is a radio presenter, journalist and author