Customs: But Once a Year

St. Francis of Assisi made the first crèche—or so his loyal biographer, St. Bonaventura, says—and it was a double success. The tableau lent a drama to the saint's sermon on Christmas Eve in 1223, and the hay later "proved a marvellous remedy for sick beasts and a prophylactic against divers other plagues.'' Since then, thousands and thousands of creches have been made, some commissioned by great lords, some modeled after master paintings, some encrusted with jewels, and some even designed to be wound up and set moving. But the most appealing creches...