creches, cribs and cots

Growing up, we always had a ceramic nativity scene (made by my Aunt Connie) on our mantel at Christmastime, and we always called it the nativity or the nativity scene. As I got older, I discovered that most other families called these things their (AmE) crèches. Until I moved away from the US (or started reading the word in non-US sources, I can't remember), that was the only English meaning of crèche that I knew. I was reminded of this limitation of AmE crèche this summer, when my mother was in town and confused by a sign for a local (BrE) crèche, which is to say a (AmE) day care center for babies. We find the 'nativity scene' meaning of crèche in the OED, but with no BrE examples after 1963. That doesn't mean such examples don't exist, of course, (you can see some at this UK Catholic gift retailer), but crèche certainly isn't the most common BrE name for such things. In fact, if one looks up 'Christmas crèche' on UK Internet sites, most hits are about (orig. AmE) babysitting/(BrE) child-minding services--or in this case, a man-minding service.

Instead, the more common BrE name for such scenes is the Christmas crib, with (BrE) crib referring specifically to a manger, as detailed by the OED:
1. A barred receptacle for fodder used in cowsheds and fold-yards; also in fields, for beasts lying out during the winter; a CRATCH. (In nearly all early quots. applied to the manger in which the infant Christ was laid; cf. CRATCH n.)
According to the OED, the extension of crib to nativity scenes was originally from the Roman Catholic church, and it may be the case that such scenes are more common in the UK in Catholic homes. In the US, they're nearly universal elements of Christmas decoration, but I don't recall seeing any in homes in the UK (yet), although there is a piece in Saturday's Guardian about the knit(ted) nativity scene (the author's term--not crib, creche, etc.--so that one seems to be dialect-neutral) that the author bought at Oxfam.

Now, of course, crib in AmE is the usual word for a baby's bed with barred sides, which in BrE would be called a cot, which in AmE means a (BrE) camp bed. But what I find funny about all this are the lyrics to the Christmas carol 'Away in a Manger':
Away in a manger,
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Laid down His sweet head
According to cyberhymnal, the author of the first two verses is unknown, but it was originally published in a Lutheran book in Philadelphia, so we can probably assume American authorship or at least assume that Americans were responsible for the first English translation of the lyrics (if they were originally German, as the Telegraph claims). We probably should assume American authorship, since if you're a BrE speaker, the lyric seems to mean 'Away in a manger, no manger for a bed'. Nevertheless the British site claims that this is "always the first carol that children are taught." (I'd like to see the research to back that up.) The only reference to 'no cot for a bed' that I've found on the web is a South African on alt.usage.english complaining "It's those damned Americans. They've even hijacked the Christmas carols". I don't see how we could have hijacked something that didn't exist before one of us made it up, but perhaps someone in South Africa should be considered a better authority on hijacking. (Oooh, Lynne's getting catty.)

Carols--particularly the ones one hears in church--vary a lot in the US and UK. The tune for 'Away in a Manger' differs in the two countries. Click here for the American tune, and here for the British one. I went to a local carol concert a couple of years ago, and found that I couldn't sing along to many of the songs, either because I'd never heard them before, or because the tunes were completely different from the ones I knew.

So...Merry (BrE informal) Chrimbo! Don't forget to nominate your favo(u)rite dialect-crossing words for the SbaCL Word of the Year!


  1. "Merry Christmhanakwanzaka (or wahtever)"

    —cribbed from Locus Magazine

    I prefer the more radical Happy Solstice!

  2. Hitting two taboos with one post, so to speak, I insert both religion and (Am) politics into the mix

  3. The only use of "crib" that I can remember from a Scottish childhood is as a verb, meaning to copy someone else's homework. If you've got a British usage that seems to be predominantly Roman Catholic, a reasonable guess is that it's originally an Irish usage. Anyway, Merry Christmas.

  4. My Canadian/Catholic mother always had the manger or crib up all the way through Advent, with me putting straw when I was good to make it soft for babyjesus, taking it out if bad. Talk about guilt. My Aunt Evelyn, of a slight higher socio-economic level and still living in Ontario (mom was a naturalized American) did call it a Creche, which mom thought was affected.

    I'm sure I was taught Away in a Manger first in school, as a very simple carol tailored for children. Still don't like it. I learned O Come O Come Emmanuel first - in church -as it is THE advent song.

    Laughed aloud at the "in a manger no manger" line. Quite right.

  5. we always had a 'crib', it's a fairly integral part of our Xmas celebrations at my house, this is largely due to my mum who was raised Catholic, so perhaps that's why. And 'Away in a Manger' was, in fact, the first carol I was taught, I remember singing it over and over again the year I was three.

  6. In America, I've always heard the general Mary-Jesus-Joseph-wisemen-shepherds-animals-stable-scene referred to as a Nativity or Nativity scene. I only ever heard the word 'manger' referring to that (and the combination of that with the 'away in a manger' song led me to assume that 'manger' was just another word for 'stable' or 'barn', as opposed to its actual meaning of 'feed trough').

    And the only time I've really encountered the word 'creche' was in a completely unrelated context, in the game Black & White, where the creche is a building you construct for children to grow up in.

  7. Incidentally, I don't know about anybody else, but the first Christmas carol I learned was "Jingle Bells". I don't think I ever actually learned "Away in a Manger" at all. I certainly don't know anything beyond the first verse. Assuming there's more than one verse.

    But then, I went to a secular public (AmE) school and was raised by Unitarian Universalists, so it's perfectly natural for the Jesus-centric carols to have been omitted.

  8. Although I've said "Chrimbo" many times, in the UK it's always said in the slightly knowing way you use when you are saying something that is borrowed, so I've always assumed it was originally Australian English.

  9. I just went through the files for the past few years at the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News, and the only usages of "creche" are either in wire stories or in contexts that treat it as a foreign word that must be explained. Otherwise, the diorama or live representation of the Holy Family with shepherds and animals is always called a "Nativity scene" or just a "Nativity" (sometimes lowercase for each).

  10. No one here in New Jersey would blink at the use of "creche." Both creche and nativitiy are commonly used here.

  11. I use "nativity scene", but I would understand "crè" though I don't think I have actually heard it used in English. Here in Canada Nativity scenes are common in both Protestant and Catholic homes, in my experience.

    I am familiar with both versions of "Away in a Manger", and I had no idea one was more British and the other more American.

    malimar - Personally I wouldn't classify "Jingle Bells" as a Christmas carol...

  12. @alex_case: As an Australian I'd never say "Chrimbo" and have only ever encountered that in British forums. The preferred Australian abbreviation is "Chrissie"

    On the subject of "creche" - I've never seen that used here in anything but the child-care sense.

  13. Never too old to learn something new! From the US South, I never heard of the word "creche". I assumed from an early age that a manger was simply a makeshift bed of hay as the only material available in an animal pen. It was never defined, we just assumed it as contextual. The diarama, as others have said, was referred to as a nativity or manger scene. Lastly, the alternate tune for "Away in a Manger" was used in our Presbyterian church this Christmas eve. Seems the Baptists prefer the more traditional US tune. Yes, it was one of the first songs learned, especially by church goers ... so much so that I really do not remember when I learned it.

  14. Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times has beaten me to the gun. My nomination for WotY is "going forward". It has been annoying me for at least seven years. Is it an AmE export to the UK, or t'other way round?

    One commentor googled it, and found it in a poem by Wordsworth, but I don't think WW's usage was as vacuous as that of present-day biz-speak.

  15. I had never heard of creche as anything but child care until this entry, either. At home we never had a nativity scene, but if we had had then that is what it would have been called. We always had one on our advent calendar, though.

    First carol was also Away in a Manger and I also have no actual memory of learning it, but the same is true of Still the Night (same tune, different words, comparing to Silent Night: "Still the night, holy the night/sleeps the child, hid from sight/Mary and Joseph in stable bare/watch o'er the child so beloved and fair/sleeping in heavenly peace/sleeping in heavenly peace." Apologies for any mistakes in that, it's been a long time, although that repetition of "child" strikes me as a tad unlikely, or poorly written.)

  16. Backing up dearieme: here in Ireland, we always call it a "crib", and never a "Christmas crib". Never used crib for any other purpose till MTV Cribs arrived. You can find moving cribs, live animal cribs, etc. There's one in every Catholic Church, and most houses (far more than advent calendars). Two things to remember: (1) don't install Babyjesus till Christmas Night (Dec 24; Dec 25 is Christmas Day Night) (2) don't install the Threewisemen till Epiphany (Jan 6).

    I would have spelt "Chrimbo" as "Crimbo": Wikipedia and Google agree. Why retain the Greek CH when most of the rest of the word is gone? In Ireland, a sandwich is similarly a "sambo", which can cause funny looks from foreigners.

  17. Passionately as I hate "Away in a Manger", I'd say that the assertion that it's the first carols kids learn is probably about right. But kids never think about the words of songs they learn so early, even if they're comprehensible in the first place (and there are hymns I sang as a child whose literal meaning still mystifies me when I think about it). I can honestly say the paradox of "no manger for a manger" had never even occurred to me. It's just words, it doesn't occur to you to think they mean anything.

  18. We call in a Nativity, I thought that the manger was the feed bin that baby Jesus uses for a crib.

    I listened to the english version of away in a manger, and I have heard this version before in church (Catholic), to me it just sounds like a slowed down version of the same melody.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)