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Who said there wasn't a cuckoo at the Nativity? — the Cuckoo Crèche

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The seconds tick by, the cuckoo calls the hour, and the band of shepherds, shepherdesses and sheep revolves around the Nativity…

The cuckoo calls the hours, a music box plays melodies filled with delight, and a band of figures revolves around the Nativity — the Cuckoo Crèche. (Please be sure your sound is on.)
The "brick" construction of this vintage sheet allowed for modifications. 
How do you escape an Arctic Blast with bone chilling -30 degree windchill?

I keep looking at the smartphone screenshots that my buddy, Celso Rosa, is sending me from sunny, 82-degree Brazil and think of getting on a plane for Florida. I can't wait to get to Miami and see what a difference of 95 degrees feels like.

But my South Beach photo shoot comes to an end all too soon, and here I am, back in the ice belt, facing an endless winter. Will Spring ever come? Will the icy stillness ever be broken by the sound of chirping birds?

Hmmmmm. I wonder: I could begin a new crèche, but could I combine it with another favorite, the cuckoo clock? Our house if full of them, because I love their carving. And they remind me of the call of the cuckoo that echoed in the Greek hills in my youth.

A Cuckoo Crèche?

So, I'm always on the lookout for cuckoo clock movements I can incorporate into my paper nativity projects.

One of my first was the Advent Cuckoo. But I wanted more. A movement that I could use to animate my nativity.

People love animation. It may come as no surprise to you that the paper nativity on Crèchemania that elicits the most comments is the Angelic Host Crèche whose revolving angels add a hypnotic effect to this splendid nativity.

Doorways had to be created in the manger so that the figures of the revolving wheel could pass through. 
Enthusiasts want to know where can they find one? I tell them that they're rare and expensive. The last one was sold for almost a $1,000! When asked about the possibility of offering the Angelic Host Crèche as a Premium Download I say that I would love to — if I ever find one in such bad shape that it would be affordable to buy and I wouldn't feel bad taking it apart.

The Angelic Host Crèche really is an ingenious nativity: warm air rising from a burning candle drives a metal fan setting the Angelic Host in motion. But a lit candle next to combustible paper has it worries, so I've always looked for another way to animate a nativity.

That's when I found it, a cuckoo clock movement with a "dancer table" on which figures twirl to music. Eureka! But there are some nasty-sounding quartz cuckoos out there. I had to hear this one.

"Just a moment, sir," says Sally, a sweet salesperson who takes the words "customer service" to heart. "I'll have to find some batteries to put in the movement so you can hear it."

Even on the phone, it was the call of the cuckoo I remembered. And do I hear a murmuring brook in the background? What a nice touch. Then the music starts, and I'm sold. A charming tune that sounds as though it comes from a real music box.

"There are twelve tunes, sir," Sally says. Would you like to hear them?"

What to do with all of these wonderful figures? Place them on a revolving wheel! 
With the cuckoo clock movement on its way next-day air, I began rummaging through my collection to find just the right nativity for my Cuckoo Crèche.

That's when I came upon the three bright, colorful sheets from Czechoslovakia you see at left.

There's so much to love about this paper nativity, but the fact that manger and front are made of "bricks" that I could use for my "remodeling" topped the list.

A revolving band

But what was I going to do with all of these wonderful figures? That's when the idea of a revolving wheel set on a the movement's dancer table came to me.

Soon, a kneeling shepherd, another shepherd on bended knee holding a lamb and a kneeling child, a woman carrying bread and another holding a bowl of fruit, a standing child offering a dove, and assorted sheep, lambs, and plants are taking their place on my revolving band.

When all the figures are placed, the band measures about 25 inches, and dividing that by pi (3.14) gives me 8 inches, the diameter of the the revolving wheel that the band will be attached to.

The revolving wheel, of strong art paper, is attached to the dancer table with bolts and hex nuts allowing for easy adjustment. 
This revolving wheel was cut out of heavy cardboard — Canson art board works nicely — and attached to the dancer table with small bolts and hex nuts, as you can see in the image at left.

You'll notice that how far the revolving wheel extends above the floor of the Cuckoo Crèche is controlled by the hex nuts underneath it. As well, fine adjustments can be made after attaching the dancer table motor to underneath the floor of the crèche to make sure that it's level with the floor and won't touch it as it revolves.

And since the whole dancer-table revolving wheel assembly drops onto the dancer table motor, it can be pulled out for any necessary adjustments.

As the revolving wheel turned, of course, you'd also see the back of the figures band. What to do? One option would have been to mount the figures on black cardboard so at least you wouldn't be seeing stark white.

Or, the better choice, and the one I chose, was to print another mirror band for the inside of the revolving wheel. But this was easier said than done!

Look at the detail of the figures in the band below, and you'll see that matching the outer and inner bands was an exercise in patience.

Running a black marker along the white edges of the revolving band is a nice touch, but it must be done slowly, lest your marker slip and smudge a side.

The revolving band curves around and its tabs attach to the bottom of the revolving wheel. 

As the Olympics reminded me, inner and out lanes are of different lengths — and so are outer and inner bands. What I had to do is cut each inner band figure apart, place it on the wrong side of the installed outer band, match it and attach it. You could simple let these mirror image pieces slightly overlap, but, for a nicer effect, I decided to trim each end a bit before attaching.

After trimming the bottom of the inner band to allow for the thickness of the revolving wheel, I would match the two pieces, apply adhesive on the bottom, and then, slowly attach the rest of the the figure before the glue was dry. There was no going back, so I had to match the inner and out figures as best I could. Take a look at that curved shepherd's crook, the tiny dove, and you'll feel my pain. Still, the finished look was so worth it.

a circle cut into the floor of the crèche the same size as the dancer table helps center the motor underneath the floor. 
Centering the revolving wheel

A circle cut into the floor of the crèche, as shown at left, the same size as the dancer table, allowed for the centering of the motor beneath the floor.

After the motor is installed the revolving wheel is dropped in from the top and set in motion — to make sure that it's parallel with and is not touching the floor.

If this was the case, fine adjustments could be made by turning the hex nuts underneath the revolving wheel and retightening the ones on top.

Remodeling the manger

You'll recall that the length of the revolving band — 25 inches — called for an 8-inch wheel.

This meant that the back wall of the manger had to be widened, and in the process I created two doorways through which the figures of the revolving wheel would pass. I made sure these doorways were wide enough, since the curvature of the figures band gave it depth: I didn't want crooks and outstretched hands catching on doorways.

The manger back wall showing the platform with the Joseph and Mother and Child figures — minus the Child. 
As you can see in the image at left, the right doorway was easy enough to create by cutting between the existing vertical wood beams. The left had to be built with blocks borrowed from the front arch.

It's important to note that the wall between the two openings is shorter that the slender outside ones to allow room for the revolving wheel underneath and a platform above.

This platform — 1/4 inches shorter in diameter than the revolving wheel, fitting inside it without obstructing its revolution — also provides a stationary base for the Mother and Child and Joseph.

A woman bearing a water jug, and the requisite ox and ass were also added to this platform, enhancing the crèche's 3D effect. (See image at bottom of page.)

Other changes include the moving of the blue lantern to an adjacent beam so it can be seen through the central arch, the addition of a curved window on the right side wall, and the raising of the back wall curved window

This was made necessary by the addition of a staircase platform to lift the the Mother, Child and Joseph figures above the figures of the revolving wheel.

The front, too, needed some remodeling since the addition of a base to house the cuckoo clock movement and made the front look too short.

You can see these changes by comparing the vintage sheets at the top left of the page with the Cuckoo Crèche at the bottom.

Working on the dial was fun. A ring of stones circles it, and I love the fact that four o'clock is represented by the traditional "IIII," not the proper Roman Numeral "IV." (I understand this was originally done to distinguish the "4" from the similar looking Roman numeral "6.")

Rocking the Child

The more I looked at the Mother and Child figure, the more I became convinced that I shouldn't let the back-and-forth moment of the pendulum mechanism go to waste.

Would it have enough power, I wondered, to provide a rocking motion for the Child?

This depiction — the Child cradled in Mary's arm — gave me the idea of a baby rocking to the rhythmic tick-tock of the clock.. 
It's a thought I've had before, but not every Mother and Child depiction provides the right perspective for such an animation. Would this work?

So tear the Child from the Mother's bosom I did, never imagining that a bonafide crèche enthusiast would ever do such a thing, and soon I was attaching a 1/4 inch-thick dowel to the back of the Child.

A small hole drilled in the center of this short dowel (about 1/4 inch-long) attaches to a brass wire passing through the Mother, through the back wall, and, in a right angle, extends down for about two inches.

This wire, in turn, is engaged by another, hooked wire, that's connected to the pendulum underneath. But before that could be accomplished, this wire would have to go over the revolving wheel figures. So we're talking about a lot of wires, and friction: would the the weak pulse of the pendulum be able to animate this assembly of wires?

Clearly, something was needed to minimize friction, and this was accomplished with the use of two tiny roller bearings.

The wires are attached to small wood dowels embedded in the roller bearings. A baby's breath would set it all motion, and so does the pendulum, beautifully. (See video.)

Reinforcing wood strips

The image of the manger back wall below shows the bass 1/2 x 1/4-inch wood strips that reinforce it. Available at hobby, hardware or lumber stores), they're easy as butter to cut with a hand-held jig saw. Notice as well the 1/2 x 1/2-inch wood strip attached to the bottom of the wall and acts to attach the platform.

In the center of the back wall, on a 4 x 1/4-inch piece of bass (available pre-cut in a 4-inch widths) you see roller bearing-and-dowel through which a brass wire provides the support — and the motive motion — for the Child.

Bass strips available in different widths make reinforcing the crèche easy. 
Watching the video will make sense of how the motion of the pendulum is transferred up and over the revolving band to rock the Child.

Visible in the image of the manger back wall are the two bolts that attach it to the floor of the crèche. These small bolts run through two 1/2 x 1/2 strips, cut at 45 degree angle on one side so that they won't be seen from the front through the manger back wall doorways.

Installing the movement

In many ways, this was perhaps the easiest part of all. Because I needed the pendulum at the back to animate the Child, I had to remove and position the clock to the back of the front base wall. This required the lengthening of the wires, and it was accomplished with small telephone butt connectors available at electronic stores.

The wires leading to the on-off switch, placed on the right side of the base, and to the cuckoo on the top left front also had to be lengthened.

The cuckoo doors were patterned on the left arched front window and were great fun to do. An 1/4 piece of bass wood is cut slightly smaller than each door, so that a black strip can just be attached around its edge and fit flush with the front and back paper door printouts.

For hinges, tiny eyes were made from fine brass wire using a round-tipped pliers. Then each end of these eyes were flattened, a tiny hole drilled into each door, and the "hinges" were carefully inserted. Because of the flattened ends, they won't move.


Now the Cuckoo Crèche was completed. The cuckoo called, the music box played, the revolving wheel turned.

But something was missing. The ticking of the clock.

The crèche floor is reinforced with precut strips that allow for secure fastening of the cuckoo mechanism. 
We're talking quartz, after all. But was I going to let that stop me? I fashioned the end of vertical rod that provides motion to the rocking Child as a triangle, and as the brass pendulum rod touches it as it swings back and forth within it, the clock comes alive: tick-tock!

Just the thing to lull you to sleep these cold nights.

And, if you wake up in the middle of the night wondering what time it is, you won't have to wait long to find out — sooner or later the cuckoo will call.

And just in case you don't want to stay awake humming along with the music box melodies , there's a light-activated switch that turns the music off after dark.



The Cuckoo Crèche measures 17.5 x 12.5 x 18 inches. 

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