The Chrismologist's Advent Calendar - Day 22

Wednesday 22 December 2010

It's that time of year now, when families start to visit church to take part in a crib service. The children among the congregation are invited to place the kings, shepherds, et al, into a pre-prepared stable scene. Actually there's one outside the church opposite my house. But where does this practice of recreating the Nativity tableau come from?

Well, as you can imagine, What is Myrrh Anyway? and Christmas Miscellany have the answers, but just to give you a taster... One man is credited with creating the Christmas crib more than any other, and that is the thirteenth-century Saint Francis of Assisi (and it's not his only connection to Christmas either).

In 1220, Francis made the pilgrimage to Bethlehem. While there, he saw how Christmas was celebrated in the town of Jesus’ birth and was so impressed that he asked the Pope, Honorious III, if he might recreate something like it in his own Italian home of Greccio.
With the help of a local landowner, Gionvanni Velita, and his friends, Francis succeeded in creating his own representation of the Nativity in a cave, surrounded by candles. Details over the actual participants in his Nativity scene vary, with some saying that Francis used statues to represent the holy family, while others say claim that real people, dressed in appropriate costumes, fulfilled the role. However, all the sources agree on the fact that at the centre of the scene was a straw-filled manger surrounded by real animals.

These days, most families have to settle for a wooden replica if they want to recreate a crib scene in their own home. In 1562 the Jesuits put up a crib in Prague, and this is considered to be the first crib of the modern kind.

In different countries the traditional Nativity scene has different names, of course. In Italy it is known as presepe or presepio; in Portuguese it is known as presépio, in Catalan it's the pessebre, in Spanish the name goes between El Belén (for Bethlehem, where Jesus was born) and also Nacimiento, Portal or Pesebre. The Maltese name is Presepju and the Czech names are betlém and jesličky. In Poland it is known as szopka, from Polish for 'small crib', in Croatian it is jaslice. In the Philippines, it is called a Belen (due to Spanish Influence). The Dutch name kerststal refers to the stable in which Jesus was born. The Scandinavian words julkrubba (Swedish) and julekrybbe (Norwegian and Danish) are made from the words for yule and manger. And in Russian and Ukrainian culture there was a type of portable Christmas puppet theatre called vertep, known in Belarus as batleyka, from 'Bethlehem'. So there you go.


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