Legitimate varieties in customs exist
By Father Edward McNamara, LC
ROME, 15 December 2015 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: My question is simple but causes confusion among us sometimes: When should the crib/Nativity scene come down in the church? Should it happen before the Baptism of the Lord or afterward? — M.M., Cape Town, South Africa
A: This and similar questions arise almost every year around this time, so some of what we say now has already been published in earlier pieces. There is not a great deal of what could be deemed "magisterium" on the Christmas crib and other Christmas traditions. Most such traditions are customary and hence are not determined in official norms. Since legitimate varieties in customs do exist, there is not necessarily a right or a wrong answer to this question.
Paintings, mosaics and reliefs have depicted the Nativity from ancient times. It is possible that one of the earliest representations of a crib was a chapel built by Pope Sixtus III (432-440) as a representation of the cave of Bethlehem. This tiny chapel, now completely lost, was adjunct to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, whose construction was initiated by the same Pope. The relics believed to be of the original manger were first placed in this chapel in the seventh century and are now found below the basilica's main altar.
There are, however, some official guidelines that manifest Church thinking on the subject of the Crib. On the universal level the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy has some pertinent indications which emphasize the importance of placing a crib at home and in church during this season. Thus, No. 104 states:
"The Crib: As is well known, in addition to the representations of the crib found in churches since antiquity, the custom of building cribs in the home was widely promoted from the thirteenth century, influenced undoubtedly by St. Francis of Assisi's crib in Greccio. Their preparation, in which children play a significant role, is an occasion for the members of the family to come into contact with the mystery of Christmas, as they gather for a moment of prayer or to read the biblical accounts of the Lord's birth."
This is corroborated by No. 111:
"At Midnight Mass, an event of major liturgical significance and of strong resonance in popular piety, the following could be given prominence: […]
"— at the end of Mass, the faithful could be invited to kiss the image of the Child Jesus, which is then placed in a crib erected in the church or somewhere nearby."
The English-language translation of the Book of Blessings (No. 1544) has a blessing for a Nativity scene in church but forbids its placement in the sanctuary. This rule would not prohibit its placement in the general area of the sanctuary (such as on a side altar no longer used) but would not permit the crèche to be placed around or in front of the altar, chair, ambo or tabernacle. Nor do I believe that this norm would exclude the custom of placing an image of the infant Jesus in the sanctuary area. This custom is quite common in many places, including St. Peter's Basilica where an image of the Infant is customarily placed on a stand located at ground level in front of the high altar. Besides this image, there is also a fully populated Nativity scene in another part of the basilica and the huge display in the square outside.
On the national level some bishops' conferences have issued guidelines. For example, the U.S. bishops' conference guidelines on church buildings, "Built of Living Stones," makes some sensible suggestions regarding Advent and Christmas decorations that can be applied everywhere. To wit:
"124. Plans for seasonal decorations should include other areas besides the sanctuary. Decorations are intended to draw people to the true nature of the mystery being celebrated rather than being ends in themselves. Natural flowers, plants, wreaths and fabric hangings, and other seasonal objects can be arranged to enhance the primary liturgical points of focus. The altar should remain clear and free-standing, not walled in by massive floral displays or the Christmas crib, and pathways in the narthex, nave, and sanctuary should remain clear.
"128. Objects such as the Advent wreath, the Christmas crib, and other traditional seasonal appointments proportioned to the size of the space and to the other furnishings can enhance the prayer and understanding of the parish community."
Diocesan bishops may also issue local guidelines which should always be taken into account.
With respect to the question as to when to remove the crib, once more customs vary from place to place, and there is no absolute rule. In some places it may be customary to remove the crib after the Epiphany. In others, and perhaps more commonly, after the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which marks the end of the official Christmas season in the current calendar.
This feast is usually the Sunday after the Epiphany. However, in those countries that transfer the Epiphany to the Sunday between Jan. 2 and 8, the feast is celebrated on a Monday, Jan. 9, whenever Christmas Day falls on a Sunday and Epiphany falls on Jan. 8. In this case the Christmas season ends on Monday instead of Sunday.
In some countries it is not unusual to retain some Christmas decorations until the feast of the Presentation of the Lord on Feb. 2. St. John Paul II would make his last visit to the crib in St. Peter's Square after celebrating the evening Mass on Feb. 2. After this visit the Nativity scene was dismantled.
This corresponds to a longstanding custom in which the eve of Candlemas was the day for removal of Christmas decorations, especially those made of greenery. This tradition is witnessed by poet Robert Herrick (1591-1654) in two of his poems, one of them “Ceremony upon Candelmas Eve”:
"Down with the rosemary, and so Down with the bays and mistletoe; Down with the holly, ivy, all, Wherewith ye dress'd the Christmas Hall."
He takes up a similar theme in the first verses of his longer verse, "Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve":
"Down with the rosemary and bays, Down with the mistletoe; Instead of holly, now up-raise, The greener box (for show). The holly hitherto did sway; Let box now domineer, Until the dancing Easter day, Or Easter's eve appear."
Therefore, at the risk of furthering a state of confusion, I can only say that the best option is to maintain what is already customary in each place.