Effie Caldarola

My 4-year-old granddaughter Charlotte is allowed to play with her family Christmas creche. The figures are virtually unbreakable, and her folks don’t care if the entire Nativity scene is rearranged daily, shepherds marching in lockstep toward the goldfish bowl or angels huddling together for a confab outside the stable.

The benefits of this kind of imaginative play, intellectually and spiritually, far outweigh the fact that the carefully orchestrated decor is disturbed.

One day, my daughter overheard Charlotte talking on behalf of a little group of angels. The big angels were reassuring the smallest angel.

“Don’t be afraid,” Charlotte playacted the big angels’ words. “Jesus is really a nice guy.”

I imagine that if we could overhear angels talking, that might be exactly what they would be saying. The spiritual writer Kathleen Norris wrote once about angels, “They say what angels always say: ‘Do not fear.'”

So Charlotte is onto something there.

My own creche is always the first thing that appears from the Christmas boxes when Advent rolls around. It means a great deal to me. When I was a little girl, we had a humble Nativity set that took pride of place in the living room at our farm.

I, too, was allowed to play with the figures. Carefully, of course, and just on the table. I particularly loved the angels. Why is it that in Scripture angels have masculine names like Gabriel and Michael, but in artistic renderings, especially in creche scenes, the angels frequently look feminine? I have no answer to this question.

But I so loved my childhood Nativity set that once, rummaging around Mom’s attic long after she had moved off the farm, I found some of the set tossed carelessly into a box. I salvaged one odd looking little sheep, and my favorite angel, clad in a deep rose-colored gown. Unfortunately, her head was broken off, but a little glue remedied that. Now, she and the sheep appear, a bit incongruously but sentimentally, in my nicer set every year.

I allowed my own children to play with my creche, rearranging the characters and imagining whatever small children imagine about a baby lying in a bed of hay surrounded by animals. It’s the beginning, I believe, of the practice of Ignatian contemplation, that form of prayer taught by St. Ignatius Loyola. In this prayer, you use your imagination to place yourself in a scene from Scripture.

You are in the stable; you experience the smells, the sights and sounds of the drama going on around you. Perhaps you imagine yourself as Mary, or maybe you’re a humble shepherd who has come upon the scene. Imagination is a powerful gift to prayer.

Prayer must come very naturally to a child. Only later do we lose this innate ability to place ourselves contemplatively into the center of Christ’s life.

St. Francis of Assisi is said to have first introduced the creche in the 13th century. Over the years, it became popular in churches and town squares. The creche, and the real-life re-enactments of the Nativity story, still popular in Catholic schools, have helped imaginations enter the Christmas story for centuries.

Advent is a wonderful time to reignite our sense of imagination. Having a creche in a quiet, dimly lit spot helps, and having one is a gift to your children. But all we really need to engage in Ignatian contemplation is the Gospel and quiet time to enter into any scene from Jesus’ life.

You may find yourself feeling as comfortable as a 4-year-old experiencing the love of Jesus, a really nice guy.