From Creche to Cave

by Sheila O'Brien

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I have long been interested in the ideas of the Catholic educator, Maria Montessori. She once wrote that "Play is the work of children." And I have found this to be true. At Christmas I have seen how the meaning of the feast comes alive for our children as they play with the figures in the creche, or make their own stories with the infant Jesus and the other Nativity characters.

But Easter has seemed more difficult for them to work with. Yes, there are Easter bunnies and chicks, and the symbolism of the eggs, but there was little direct play involvement. During one Lent a few years ago I happened upon a stone in the garden by our house. It was about the size of my hand, perfectly oval and flat. It crossed my mind that the stone rolled across our Lord's tomb might have looked something like this. Then the light went on! Why not make an Easter creche? Well, you couldn't really call it a creche because creche means crib. Why not have and Easter Cave? Hmmmmm...where to find a portable cave?

As Easter week approached the children and I solved our problem by deciding that we would make our own cave. Dad rummaged around in his scrap pile and provided a piece of thick plywood for a platform, which he cut down to size (about 16 inches by 24 inches) I found some old chicken wire and shaped it roughly into a hill, leaving a hole at the front centre. When this frame was nailed to the plywood, we tore up strips of newspaper, soaked them in paste and laid them over the chicken wire until it was completely covered.

After it had dried overnight, we repeated this procedure until we had four thick layers build up over the wire. It was now as rigid as we needed, and strong enough for years of concentrated play. We had a lot of fun painting it: rock-grey, bordered by flowers. The base of the plywood was still visible so we painted it green like grass.

The children made the characters from old fashioned clothes pegs. This was the most creative part of the project. They busily decorated dozens of characters from the Gospel story. I read some of the passages to them as we worked, and they repeated them and embellished on them to themselves. The older ones retold the missing parts to the younger and the younger ones corrected the older...all in all an interesting and hilarious view into the minds of children.

Touching too, because they have an uncanny way of getting to the heart of the story and grasping its real meaning. The cast kept growing, including stalwart soldiers in red capes with toothpick swords, lacy Mary Magdalene, an opulent High Priest, homespun apostles and a sequined angel. The children drew and painted appropriate expressions on the tiny faces. One year, even Judas put in an appearance. We discovered him hanging by a thread from a branch. A little macabre, but the kids loved it.

On Good Friday the scourged dead Jesus peg doll is carefully laid in the tomb, covered by a white silk shroud, one which one of the children painted an image of the Lord (after the Shroud of Turin.) He rests on a papier-mache block, and the stone is rolled over the entrance. Soldiers are set on guard, Judas swings in the breeze and everyone else runs away, except Mother Mary.

On Easter morning the first child awake gets to run downstairs, roll away the stone, hide the corpus and leave the shroud draped over the bier. An angel triumphantly stands by the entrance and the soldiers are blown over every which way. The women run towards the tomb. It is very dramatic and always seems to arrest the children's attention. We realised how effective this play was when one tiny member of the family wondered aloud how Jesus got through the ceiling of our living room to Heaven. Our children still enjoy the Easter rabbit and the eggs, but these have become sidelights to our Easter Cave. Consuming is a limited pleasure, but play is an endless joy. And here they are playing at the feet of the Risen Lord.

Creche 2

For Cave: For Dolls:
Plywood board, 1/2 " thick Old fashioned clothes pegs, or craft pegs
Chicken wire, mesh wire Lumps of plasticine as base for pegs, or small pieces of wood on which to glue pegs
Nails with wide heads, wood staples Pipecleaners or wire for arms.
Papier mache mix Small scraps of fabric, lots of variety in colour and texture
Newspaper strips, torn not cut, 1"x10" Glue, string, scissors, sequins
Paints Needle and thread.

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