THE CHRISTMAS SEASON runs from the first Sunday of Advent in December and ends tomorrow on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. That means we still have time for this one last Yule season column. Last week we covered the date of Christ's birth. This week let's take a look at Nativity scenes.
We don't know for certain the date or even the exact location where Jesus was born because there was nothing written in those days to document the birth of the Christ Child. We do know, however, that He was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. But for the first 1,200 years there were no Christmas Nativity scenes displayed.
Tradition holds that He was born in a stable. In those days many animals were kept in basements or lower floors, rather than barns. More than likely this was the "stable." Most families today setup a nativity scene or crèche at Christmas. The word crèche is French for cradle.
As a kid, you may have donned a blue shawl or a fake beard and played characters in the Christmas story for your mom, dad or siblings. From that you learned about the birth of Jesus and, today, you understand it as a staple of the Christmas holidays. Whether performed by children, set up as little figurines in a home or installed as a life-size tableau in front of churches, these settings are fundamental for Christmas scenes.
Our family has a Nativity Scene. It's among the first decorations that go up each year. We bought it the first Christmas we were married. It's big, complete with a large stable, almost foot tall statues, an ox, donkey, sheep, shepherds with staffs, Wise Men with gifts, camels and an angel. At the risk of sounding holier than thou, for us, I can't imagine a Christmas without the manger scene displayed. But when did this tradition begin?
The Nativity has been a major subject of Christian art since the fourth century. Early Nativity artists showing the birth of Jesus, based their work on the narratives of Sts. Matthew and Luke in the New Testament and further elaborated by written, oral and artistic tradition.
The first record found of a stable display, was used by fourth century Christians during the dark ages. Those first Nativity scenes go back to ancient Rome. They were painted on the walls of the catacombs. These were underground tunnels used for prayer, church services and cemeteries. Because many of the faithful were illiterate, priests read the gospels for them and through paintings and figures, interpreted the Bible through literal representations. Surprisingly, during the first centuries of Christianity, the feast of the Epiphany was more important than Christmas. The Epiphany celebrated the visit of the Magi.
The first record we have of the celebration of Christmas dates from 354 AD and the earliest pictorial representations of Jesus' Nativity come from both the sarcophagi in Rome and Southern Gaul (France) around this date. These artworks are later than the first scenes of the Adoration of the Magi, which appears in the catacombs of Rome. Many of these predate the legalization of Christian worship by the Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century.
Page 2 of 3 - Typically, art work of the Magi show them moving in step together, holding their gifts in front of them toward a seated Virgin with Christ on her lap. They closely resemble the motif of tribute-bearers which is common in the art of most Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cultures.
The earliest representations of the Nativity itself are very simple. They just show the infant, tightly wrapped, lying near the ground in a cattle trough (manger) or wicker basket. The ox and ass are always present, even when Mary or any other human is not.
Although they are not mentioned in the Gospel accounts it was understood that these two animals were confirmed by scripture from Old Testament verses, such as Isaiah 1:3 which reads, "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib," and Habakkuk 3:2 which reads, "In the midst of the two beasts wilt thou be known." Consequently, the presence of these two animals in the Nativity scene has never been questioned by theologians.
Mary is only shown when the scene is the Adoration of the Magi, but often one of the shepherds, or a prophet with a scroll, is present. From the end of the fifth century (following the Council of Ephesus), Mary becomes a fixture in the scene; then later Joseph becomes present. Where a building is shown, it is usually a tugurium, which is a simple tiled roof supported by posts.
It was St. Francis of Assisi who first popularized the Nativity scene at Christmas in the year 1223 AD. It happened more than 1,200 years after the birth of Christ. He did it by celebrating the Mass next to a hay-filled manger in Greccio, Italy. History tells us that St. Francis was a lover of animals. Being such a devotee, he even used live animals to dramatize the birth of the Christ Child. Eventually, this Christmas scene spread throughout Europe when Christians started erecting crib scenes. In Italy the scene was called the praesepe or manger. In Spain it was called the nacimiento or Nativity scene and in Germany it was called the krippe or crib.
Nativity buffs will know, however, that the familiar cast of characters relied upon today, the three wise men and the shepherds, is not biblically accurate. Of the New Testament's four gospels, only Matthew and Luke describe Jesus' birth. Matthew mentions wise men, while Luke comments on shepherds. But nowhere in the Bible do shepherds and wise men appear together. What's worse, no one mentions donkeys, oxen, cattle or other farmyard friends in conjunction with Jesus' birth. But what would a nativity scene be without those staples?
History also tells us the practice of setting up Nativity scenes during the Christmas holidays continued for Christians until the Renaissance when wise men were added as well as elaborate backdrops. It all explains why today, Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ by displaying Nativity scenes in churches, in public and in their homes.
Page 3 of 3 - At Midnight Mass, during my childhood back in the 1950s, an almost life-size crèche adorned the one side of the church's altar. This was surrounded by tall evergreens, no lights, but the tallest closest to the manger held a bright glowing star. It's part of my Christmas memories and some of which I'll always cherish.
At home, my Dad would set up a Nativity scene under the tree, complete with the Joseph, Mary and Jesus in a manger, the three wise men, their camels, shepherds, a ox and some sheep figurines. Around the outside he set a five car American Flyer train, complete with engine that whistled and smoked, a tender car and caboose. This ran around the tree on a two rail track.
Since there was no donkey (it broke), it's probably why, as a very young kid, I pictured Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem on the train. That is until I started the first grade at a Roman Catholic school and the good nuns set me straight. When I told my Dad he got a good laugh out of it. That was the year he finally added the donkey.
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