Zen and the Art of Stealing a Crèche


December 21, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

 A Monk conducts a Christmas choir of boys dressed in religious robes to sing Christmas carols beside a nativity display. Bruges, 1935 Courtesy Flickr Commons

A Monk conducts a Christmas choir of boys dressed in religious robes to sing Christmas carols beside a nativity display. Bruges, 1935. Courtesy Flickr Commons

In the divorce, my husband got the crèche.

It made sense. He was the Christian – a clergyman, which is to say a professional Christian – and I wasn’t sure I believed in anything anymore. He could not take back his name  – Valley of the Stag, Nancarrow means in Cornish. It was a family name, our children’s name, and I chose to keep it.

But it made sense that he have the crèche. It was hand carved and from Ireland. He was the Celt, embracing Lindisfarne, Arthurian legend, the poems of Yeats. We divided a lot of things – the furniture, the books, the Fiestaware – but you can’t split up the Holy Family. So my ex-husband got the crèche, and I practiced Zen detachment.

Photo courtesy Byer's Choice

Photo courtesy Byer’s Choice

I did have the nativity ornament that hung on our Christmas tree.

creche ornament

Vintage Ornament from the 1980’s. Courtesy Etsy.

A small manger made out of unfinished pine with Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus inside, it came from the church we were married in. These days, while I am living with a friend and recovering from the economic meltdown that was my personal recession, it is buried in a box in my storage unit. (This picture is close.) At some point in time the round ball of wood perched on top of the tiny cone that was the Virgin Mary’s body – with its disk of a halo and little veil – detached.

Mama had a baby and her head popped off!

The chant was from a game my sister used to play with dandelions. Not everyone says “her,” but we did. I always wondered whose head was doing the popping off. Mary’s experience seemed to settle the matter.

Some years we would make Mary a new head out of a jelly bean, a pea of modeling clay, or a bit of tin foil from a chocolate kiss. Other years we would honor Our Lady’s decapitation for what it was.

Mama had a baby

I did not know I missed the crèche until I found myself stealing one.

It was June 2007, three years after the house divided for good. I was at the Cloquet Forestry Center in northern Minnesota, at a writer’s retreat with the Split Rock Arts Program. The theme was “Nature and the Literary Imagination.” There was a session in the morning, and one in the afternoon, then a gathering together again in the evening for reflection and critique.

The instructor was Patricia Weaver Francisco, author of Telling: A Memoir of Rape and Recovery. It was on her reading list that I first encountered photographer and Zen abbot John Daido Loori, who gave me the only creed I have really believed in since:

There is always an aspect of life, of art, of religious practice that is a little bit out of our reach. We can trust that. The three essentials of trust—trust in your spiritual practice, trust in the creative process, and trust in yourself—must ripen if we are to free ourselves. Give yourself permission to be yourself, and don’t be frightened by the unknown.

The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life

Pat also gave me back my crèche. Or let me take it.

One day we came into the classroom to find these:

tree trunk creche

“Write about what you see,” she said.

Staring into that first wedge of tree trunk, with its hole in the center that moves out to the edge, so that the ring is split and curved into itself, I saw Mary and Joseph, their heads bending close together over a small brown bundle, the child who made them more than coupled, made them a place for God to grow in the world.

No one was more surprised to see them there than me.

At our last class, I asked if I might take that particular slice of tree trunk home.

It meant something to me, something I needed to keep close by. Pat didn’t think anyone would mind, but I probably should ask permission. Technically it was property of the Center. I visited the administrative office, more than once, but no one was ever in.  Finally, in my last hour on the campus, I stopped by the classroom once more. The door was open. I took my souvenir.

I was the one who saw the crèche. That would have to be permission enough.

Two dressed up children play crèche (Christmas figurines). The doll represents baby Jesus. The Netherlands, 1950. Courtesy Flickr Commons

Two dressed up children play crèche (Christmas figurines). The Netherlands, 1950. Courtesy Flickr Commons

22 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Stealing a Crèche

  1. Norah says:

    I see Mary and Joseph and their child also. I may not have had you not pointed it out. I’m pleased that you now have your own creche and wish you much joy at Christmas time.


  2. Annecdotist says:

    Lovely seasonal post, Paula. So understandable you’d want to steal what you feel has been stolen from you! Makes me wonder who in our family will get custody of our parents’ lovely crib figurines, maybe I should put my bid in now!


  3. I can see Mary & Joseph, and the babe too – what a lovely souvenir Paula! #special !

    I used to have a beautiful Nativity set, I even made a stable (got hubs to make a stable) to arrange them all in, over the years, one by one, the pieces were damaged by my Littlies, I never realised, until reading your post, how much I missed it – I think I’ll look out for another one in time for next year :)

    Great post, as always.

    Wishing you and yours a lovely Christmas, Kimmie x


    • My children considered them toys as well. The wooden ones actually look so much like the wooden figure they use in Godly play to tell Bible stories that i can see why they might consider them such. If you can find a set that pleases you that she can’t damage too much, you’ll have the best of both worlds.


  4. Anita Stout says:

    Was 2007 THE year for houses to be divided or something? Happened the same year for me. On the reverse side of things though I then married a pastor – not of my faith. We don’t attend the same church, have the same politics or speak the same language (I speak heart and he speaks head) With all those differences it still works a lot better than did the prior to 2007 union.

    I too see Mary, Joseph and the babe! Beautiful Christmas post. Thanks for sharing.


    • The house itself divided in 2004; I got my own wooden creche in 2007 ;-). So glad to hear you have a marriage where differences between you do not prevent intimacy. That’s tough for so many people. Have a blessed holiday, Anita, however that’s defined for you.


  5. burke59 says:

    Beautifully written, thoughtful and thought-provoking–glad you got your creche back.


  6. Charli Mills says:

    Reminds me of the saying, better to ask for forgiveness later than permission first. :-) Beautiful story and I’m glad you took ownership of what you had lost.


  7. Merry Xmas Paula! Visited Nancarrow Farm near Truro last year, not far from where we live


  8. It’s interesting how some things mean more to us than we realise; not even when they are gone but when something reminds us of them. Thanks for sharing.


  9. This proves we can make art out of anything. A good reminder when we’re feeling blocked. Well done!


  10. Judith Post says:

    So interesting, as always. I’d have never seen a creche when I looked at that wooden slice. Glad you did. I’ve never heard “Mama had a baby and her head popped off.” If I had, I’d have been more serious about birth control:)


  11. […] nativity ornament, which I have spoken of before. A miniature knit glove with her name on it, given the year she was born. A blue rowboat, hanging […]


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