Christmas traditions have added the ginger and spice to the discussions over the past several weeks. The journey began with thoughts about advent and ways to count down to the celebration of Christmas. Later the traditions centered round the use of light during the holiday. Finally, traditions of music prove meaningful even during a pandemic. One last tradition needs to be explored.
If you display a plaster or carved or statues of a Nativity this Christmas, you are a part of a storied season tradition that dates back nearly eight centuries. Today let’s talk about the history of the Nativity crèche.
St. Francis of Assisi bears the honor of creating the first known Nativity scene. The only historical account of the adventure comes from a biography of St. Francis’ life written by St. Bonaventure. According to the biography, St. Francis received permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio around the year 1223.
Francis then invited the villagers to come and view the scene while he preached about “the babe in Bethlehem.” Bonaventure claims Francis was so overcome by emotion that he could no longer say the name “Jesus” during the sermon.
Legends about the event quickly grew. Bonaventure himself claims that the hay used by Francis miraculously cured local cattle of diseases. One witness among the crowd claimed that a carved doll that Francis used for the baby cried tears of joy when Francis embraced him.
The popularity of nativity scenes exploded from there. Within a couple of centuries scenes were a part of celebrations in churches and villages throughout Europe. In 1291, Pope Nicholas IV, the first pope with a Franciscan background, ordered that a permanent Nativity scene be built at Santa Maria Maggiore, the largest church dedicated to Mary in Rome.
The first known living Nativity scene found expressive memorial by the Italian Renaissance painter Giotto di Bondone in the Arena Chapel of Padua, Italy. As the popularity of the scenes grew, so did the participants of animals and people. In a circular painting of the Adoration of the Magi by 15th Century painters Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi, sheep, donkeys, a cow, an ox and even a peacock are present to honor the Christ-child.
By the mid-1500s Nativity sets began to appear in the homes of some of the wealthier citizens. Nativities crafted for homes were naturally much smaller than the large statues found in churches. Artisans used wax, wood and terracotta. The smaller figures were dressed in beautiful clothing.
Almost every area where Christianity flourished added its own influence and style to the traditions. The Nativity in Germany is celebrated more than anywhere else in the world. All parts of the Nativity are displayed with the exception of the baby Jesus, who is added to the scene after Christmas Eve.
In Italy, a nativity scene called a “presepe” is the most important part of any Christmas decoration. You will find them in churches, town squares and in many homes. The scene includes a crib filled with straw. The nativity is on display through Epiphany.
In the Christian faith, the terms crèche and nativity scene are used synonymously. They represent the birth of Christ. Technically, nativity is used to refer to the birth of a person. Adding the word “scene” to nativity speaks to the entire birth experience of the baby.
Créche is a French term that refers to the care given to a child. Often it is used in connection with nurseries or daycare centers today. The crèche refers to the baby Jesus in the manger as he is cared for by Mary and Joseph and the onlookers.
Nativities came to the New World as Protestant immigrants brought their customs to their new homes. The United Brethren from Herrnhut, known as the Moravians, founded the town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on Christmas Eve in 1741. Their crèche traditions caught on with their neighbors and spread to other communities.
The public display of Nativity scenes have caused some controversy over the past several decades. According to studies by the Pew Research Center, 44% of Americans say they are fine with nativities on public property and another 28% indicate they should be displayed along with displays from other faiths. Currently, nativities are allowed on public property as long as they are privately funded and sponsored.
Most Catholic families leave the nativity set mostly empty during Advent, except for the animals. On Christmas Eve, it is a tradition to add Mary and Joseph early in the day, the baby Jesus after evening and the baby and shepherds on Christmas day.
Rather than being a perfectly accurate rendition of the biblical accounts of the birth of Christ, the crèche serves as a summary of the story, a visual representation of the important elements of faith. They are seen as displays of art and beauty, touching the heart and mind with a message that is bigger than the season.
The nativity tradition of Naples, Italy may be the most famous in the world. The city is home to the world’s oldest workshops of nativity scene artisans. Travelers to Naples love to buy both traditional figures and those that depict saints, politicians and celebrities. Their nativity tradition consist of two stories: the mystery and the partition. The mystery contains the traditional setting with Mary, Joseph, the baby and the other figures.
The second story is called the partition. This scene does not take place in Bethlehem, but on a mountain landscape with different hues of pink to reflect a winter sunset. The setting houses a tavern and a marketplace. Characters include a beggar, a lame man, the blind, a gypsy and a sleeping pastor who misses the event. For an additional fee, a figurine can be carved bearing your likeness.
Where would you fit into the Christmas story?