On a walk through our neighborhood, I saw a Nativity scene on a lawn and pointed out the “Christmas crèche” to the Chief Critic. “Is there any other kind of crèche?” asked the C. C., in a slightly sassy tone. Well, I wasn’t sure, so I looked it up.
That hoary old standby, the Oxford English Dictionary apparently never heard of Christmas, for the only definition of crèche on offer is “a public nursery for infants of poor women while they are at work”; in other words, a day care center. The Online Etymological Dictionary cites an 1854 usage for this meaning.
The origin of the word is Old French cresche, meaning “crib, manger, or stall,” but there are cognates in Italian (grippa) and Old High German (kripja).
Webster’s dictionaries have more Christmas spirit. The Second Edition International first gives “day nursery,” then “foundling hospital,” and, finally, the definition we expect: “a representation of the stable at Bethlehem, with the Infant Jesus, surrounded by the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, oxen, asses, adoring shepherds, and Magi.” It offers no usage history, but its cousin Webster’s Collegiate says it was first used in that sense in 1792—predating the “public nursery” meaning by 62 years.
The Collegiate adds that a crèche can also mean a “group of young animals (as penguins or bats) gathered in one place for care and protection.” Who knew?
Certainly not the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who tried to steal the Magi’s gold from the last crèche he saw, but mistakenly grabbed a big pot of myrrh instead.
That time I stole a pot of myrrh,
It’s not what I hoped would occyrrh,
It happened in a hazy blyrrh,
When I had drunk too much liquyrrh.
I now repent that I did yrrh,
And acted like some amatyrrh!