24 December 2007

Christmas Crib Crawl

I always think of Advent as a profoundly English time of year. I realise that may sound a tad odd, but it probably derives from my having been enchanted by The Dark is Rising and The Box of Delights when I was a child.

Last December saw me spending Advent -- or at least all of Advent bar a few wonderful Mancunian days -- in Dublin for my first time since 2000, and with new eyes I was struck by how small a part is played by carol-singing in the period leading up to Christmas at home. Looking at the latest Irish Catholic, Mary Kenny makes a related point:
As a child in the Dublin of the 1950s, I do not recall ever attending carol services. I rather think they were regarded as something English, and not in the true Irish tradition -- although other overseas influences had colonised our Christmas, such as the Americanised Santa Claus or the German Christmas tree.
It's an interesting point, but I think something even more fundamental may be in play, as the relative absence of carols and carol services here -- and it is only a relative absence, as it's not as though they're nowhere to be found -- may be compensated for by the extraordinary ubiquity of the crib in Dublin.

Take, for example, O'Connell Street, as painted here on a friend's wall by the Brother some years back. Yes, I know, it doesn't quite look like this any more, but I'm not happy with my own photos of it, so you'll have to admire the Brother's antiquarian artistry instead. O'Connell Street is Dublin's main thoroughfare, of which you'll hear Dubliners boasting that it's the broadest city street in Europe. I've a feeling that the Champs Elysees has a more credible claim to that distinction, but it's impressive enough for all that, especially now that it's getting a facelift after years of abuse and neglect.

Anyway, if you visit the G.P.O., the big neoclassical building on the left of the Brother's mural, you'll see a crib, which though simultaneously gaudy and tacky is nonetheless not quite as sinister as it was a few years back when not merely did Joseph look eerily like Osama Bin Laden, but the back wall of the crib featured a painting of Jesus, Mary, and what can only be described as an Evil Joseph, looming over the manger in a decidedly threatening manner.

A little further up the street you'll see a fine outdoor crib, just beside the Christmas tree in the street's central island. It's unfortunately located just yards away from the Anne Summers shop, but what can you do? But that's what Christmas is about isn't it? The Incarnation of Our Lord, evergreen trees, and exotic underwear? No? Not quite? Oh.

Crossing the road over towards the Savoy cinema, you may just notice the rather odd Mary Mediatrix shop. Naturally enough there is a crib in the window, with the conventional figures cheerily deployed against a tin foil backdrop.

That's just on the street itself; barely off it on Abbey Street, should you care to stray, you'll find the Veritas shop, which has recently been in the news because of the national broadcaster's concerns that references to cribs in an advert for Veritas might consitute illegal advertising, being 'directed towards religious ends'.

Also just off O'Connell Street, of course, on the junction of Marlborough Street and the somewhat ironically named Cathedral Street, there is the Pro-Cathedral, which this year has a rather less ambitious but also decidedly less bizarre crib than last year.

And then, finally, up at the St Martin Apostolate on Parnell Square, so just a couple of minutes' walk from the Parnell Monument at the northern end of O'Connell Street, you'll find the Moving Crib, which has been a fixture of Christmas in Dublin since 1956. Billed as possibly unique in Europe, it features mechanised scenes from the Garden of Eden up to the Nativity in -- I suppose -- an attempt to communicate the place of the Incarnation in Salvation History. Visiting it the other day, I was amazed at just how shabby and shoddy it all was, but in this regard I had the clear disadvantage of not being five years old. Loads of children were being led about by their parents, eyes glued to the various scenes, and hanging on every word their parents whispered to them.

That's six cribs either on or just barely off the street. You'll not see a concentration like that in England. I can't help wondering if this is one of those little differences that, while not absolute, derive from England being culturally a Protestant country and Ireland being culturally a Catholic one.

After all, Protestantism in all its forms is essentially a child of the age of print, Gutenberg begetting Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, and all those who've followed in their footsteps by making it possible for Christians to possess and read their own Bibles. The notion of sola scriptura arose from this new possibility, just as did the ransackings of so many churches. It's hardly surprising then that Protestant countries should even now emphasise verbal evangelisation, whether spoken or -- especially at Christmas -- sung.

Catholic Christianity on the other hand, having arisen in a time when books were priceless and few could read anyway, evangelised by any means possible. Despite having collated and canonised the Bible on which the Sixteenth Century Reformers were so exclusively -- they thought -- to rely, for over a thousand years Catholics had evangelised by visual means as much as by the written word. The results we know: statues, relief sculptures, Celtic crosses, icons, frescoes, stained glass windows, and cribs.

I may come back to this on St Stephen's Day. We'll see.

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