Religion: Baby Jesus, ox and donkey – 800 years of nativity scene

Baby Jesus, ox and donkey – 800 years of nativity scene

A nativity scene in the Franciscan monastery in the central Italian community of Greccio. photo

© Christoph Sator/dpa

Regardless of whether it’s kitsch or cultural: in many households, nativity scenes are a traditional part of the celebration. According to legend, they were invented exactly 800 years ago by Francis of Assisi.

This year there is one more reason to celebrate at Christmas: apart from 2023 years of the birth of Christ, according to the official reading of the Roman Catholic Church, the night of December 25th will be celebrated Christmas nativity scene exactly 800 years old. The first nativity play in Christian history is said to have been shown on Christmas night 1223 in a rock cave near the central Italian village of Greccio. According to legend, the idea came from St. Francis of Assisi, the namesake of today’s Pope Francis.

The anniversary is being celebrated accordingly, in Greccio and the Vatican too. In the Sabine Mountains, an hour and a half drive from Rome, we are currently halfway through an eight-week cultural program. This year, Francis had a Greccio nativity scene with life-size figures set up in St. Peter’s Square. The head of 1.3 billion Catholics is considered a lover of this popular tradition – according to the idea that it is the small and simple things that point the way to God. In his childhood, the nativity scene was even more important than the Christmas tree, said the Pope. “This sign was never missing from my parents’ house in Buenos Aires at Christmas.”

Tradition in many living rooms

This was also a tradition in Europe. Especially in Catholic areas, it was a good tradition to recreate the pious scene from the Bethlehem stable in the living room at Christmas: with small figures made of wood, wax, cast iron, clay, papier-mâché, often against the backdrop of one’s own homeland. Handcrafted scenes from the Alps, Provence and the Naples area were particularly popular. For many farmers, making nativity scenes was a highly valued sideline in winter.

The scene was mostly the same: in the center the baby Jesus in a feeding trough, Mary and Joseph next to him, as well as oxen and donkeys as well as shepherds and musicians. It was important that little Jesus was not allowed to be placed in the manger before Christmas Eve and that the three kings – and their camels – only came on January 6th. By February 2nd, the feast of Candlemas, at the latest, everything went back into the box or box until the next December.

Over time, more and more characters were added. In Italy, where nativity scenes are still important today, pizza makers are almost standard. Elsewhere, characters from “Star Wars” and “Sesame Street” joined in. There were a few years in German living rooms when the SA and the Wehrmacht paid their respects to the baby Jesus. In London, the wax museum “Madame Tussauds” got into a lot of trouble because the Holy Family there consisted of the Beckhams. As Christmas became increasingly commercialized, nativity scenes at home became less important. They still exist in most churches.

A night in the rock cave

According to tradition, everything goes back to the founder of the Franciscan order. Supposedly, 800 years ago, Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226) re-enacted the Christmas Gospel in the cave with some friars and shepherds in order to make the story more understandable to the people of Greccio. Very few people could read back then. Assisi’s biographer Thomas von Celano reported that the participants in the midnight mass felt a “joy that they had never experienced before.” The baby Jesus is said to have even appeared to a monk.

This is how history is celebrated to this day. On the spot where the cave is said to have been, a monastery of the Franciscan order has stood for centuries. It has also been open to tourists since 1989. There is now a souvenir shop and at least four monks. The Pope has a self-written apostolic letter (“Admirabile Signum”) about nativity scenes in the chapel. Francis has also visited Greccio.

No sign of Mary and Joseph

Whether this happened back then is one of the many questions of faith in the Catholic Church. If so, then it was a “live nativity scene” in a very reduced form: there is no mention anywhere that a Mary or a Joseph were present at the performance. However, it is scientifically proven that there are much older depictions of Christ’s birth – on early Christian sarcophagi, for example, or in Romanesque cathedrals. In Rome, the oldest nativity scene can be found in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, a marble monument from 1291.

In Greccio, people are not deterred by this. The sign “First Christmas Nativity Scene in the World” is proudly displayed at the entrance to the town. The buses are parked directly behind it. Greccio’s Christmas market is probably one of the few where more money is made from nativity figures than from mulled wine. A lot of things are made in China. This doesn’t bother Fra Giovanni, one of the remaining Franciscans. “Of course it’s commercial,” says the friar. “But what’s important is that the tradition is preserved.” In the monastery they also offer Italian handicrafts. The set of 17 figures costs 350 euros.


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