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The time travel of Crib

di Elena Marco Bucci

The first living nativity scene is Italian and was born in Greccio. The first representation of the Nativity in history dates to 1223. San Francesco made it in Greccio, a small town in the province of Rieti, the first living nativity scene in history.

The representation of the nativity of Jesus Christ is a practice that has been repeated and developed over the centuries. It first started with simple drawings and then became an artistic expression. It has been reflected for centuries in the imagination and the works of painters and sculptors. Fairytale applications have been discovered in the spotlight. It has become a tradition that extends from churches to museums and homes. So, let us journey through history to discover how the crib was born and spread throughout history.

St. Francis and the first nativity scene

These days, the nativity scene is present in the homes worldwide of millions of families, not only Catholics; we should remember that this tradition is due to St. Francis. However, the first nativity scene in the modern sense of the term is commonly traced back to the one staged by St. Francis of Assisi on Christmas Day 1223 in the small town of Greccio. But first, let us visit the starting point of Crib.

The origin of the crib

The first historical evidence of the nativity scene dates to the III-IV century, when Christians depicted images of Mary with the little Jesus on her lap in their meeting places, such as the catacombs. The simple symbolic inscriptions, like, for example, the drawing of the fish, symbolised Jesus Christ. (In Christian catacombs, liturgical kits, and ornaments, the fish figure is always present to represent Christ.)

Medieval pictorial representations

From the fifteenth century and throughout the Middle Ages, examples of nativity scenes can be considered the numerous representations of the nativity of Christ by painters such as Botticelli, Giotto, Piero of Francesca, and Correggio, many of which are exhibited in churches to show the illiterate population the scenes of the life of Jesus.

Sandro Botticelli – Natività mistica,  Giotto – Natività di Gesù,  Piero della Francesca – Natività

The Journey of St. Francis

Let us now return to the journey of St. Francis. It was 1209 when St. Francis went to Greccio for the first time. The saint had managed to end the severe calamities that had struck the town (including the attacks of wolves) and had built a hut on Monte Lacerone, known as Monte Lacerone, where a memorial chapel would have been built in 1712.

From 1217, the noble Giovanni Velita became one of San Francesco’s best friends, so much so that he asked him to approach the city to allow everyone to listen to his word. Three years before interpreting the cradle, San Francesco had visited the places of Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem and had been fascinated by the birth of God, who became man and the humble, fragile organ son of a “living representation” of that event.

Francis prepared it meticulously with the help of Giovanni da Greccio, a lord of the area whom the saint greatly esteemed because “although he was noble and highly honoured in his region, he esteemed the nobility of the spirit more than that of the flesh.” He wanted to organise a “representation” of the birth of Jesus, which was not, however, a “show” to be shown to the curious but a “real and visual reconstruction”. Thomas of Celano reports the exact words that Francis said to John: “I would like to represent the child born in Bethlehem and, in some way, see with the eyes of the body the discomforts in which he found himself due to the lack of the things necessary for a newborn, how he was laid in a crib and how he lay on the hay between the ox and the donkey”. Giovanni di Greccio organised everything as Francesco had asked. Once the news spread, the people of the place, and not only, gathered at the cave where Francis and the friars went to pray. “Men and women came, celebrating, each one carrying, according to his possibilities, candles and torches to light up that night”.

The first nativity scene in history was set up in a cave near the woods near the village. Francis took the manger with straw to a cave and led the ox and the donkey (there were no Virgin Mary, Joseph, and the little boy). The population flocked to it so the saint could tell all those present who did not know how to read the story of the birth of Jesus. According to the hagiographies, a child would appear in the manger during mass, which Saint Francis would hold in his arms. On December 24, 1223, the first living nativity scene in history was created, making the Greccio village famous worldwide. It was set among the rocks at an altitude of 700 meters.

The peculiarity of this nativity scene, in addition to being the first in history, lies in the fact that it was also the first living nativity scene in the world, although yet to be represented in its complete form.

How the nativity scene spread from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century

The greatness of San Francesco and the interest in his deeds constituted the ideal sponsor for the diffusion of the nativity scene. Following his example, the first nativity representations, complete with scenography and sculpted figurines, appeared in churches alongside paintings that dealt with the same subject. Starting from Greccio, the crib thus became a popular tradition throughout central Italy and Emilia. During the fifteenth century, the nativity scene reached the city of Naples. In the following decades, following Pope Paul III’s invitation to the faithful through the Council of Trent (1545-1563), it also conquered a place in noble houses under the form of ornament or in the guise of a miniature chapel.

The invention of the modern crib

However, the eighteenth century was the most flourishing period for the nativity scene, which by now had reached a large part of Italy and had already declined in the different popular traditions (Neapolitan, Genoese, Bolognese, etc).

The crib art spread in the houses of the most famous families of the cities. Especially in Naples, the nativity scene reached original and highly sought-after levels of expression, becoming a source of pride for families who vied for the most sumptuous nativity scene. To this end, the nobles spared no expense and commissioned their trusted sculptors to impose works made with more precious materials. They dedicated entire rooms of their residences to the nativity scenes to show them off during receptions and private parties.

In this period, the Santa Lucia fair was established in Bologna, an annual market (which still today attracts thousands of enthusiasts from all over the world) where the figurines made by local artisans were exhibited.

The popular crib

Ironically, the nativity scene, born to communicate with the population, entered social housing only after finding a place in churches and noble residences. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the nativity scene tradition gained the central place it still occupies in the homes of ordinary people during the Christmas holidays.

Today, thanks to technology, the traditional nativity scene has been enriched with new features (lights, flowing streams, etc.) and new materials. Although there are still many nativity scenes that are made with traditional materials (terracotta, wood, plaster, and paper-mâché), many of those available in shops are made of plastic material, which is cheaper and more durable over time.

Not only that but today, the nativity scenes are also found outdoors, displayed in the squares of many cities in Italy and beyond, where they become an integral part of the Christmas decorations in the town centre, offering themselves to a vast audience made up not only of residents but during the Christmas period also of numerous tourists who, with their photos and videos, in the era of social networks, contribute directly to promoting the image and tradition of the nativity scene all over the world.

The nativity scene calendar

There is no fiscal date on which the sets, houses and crib characters must be removed from the boxes in the attic (or in the cellar). Naturally, everything must be ready by mid-December, when every self-respecting house has already decorated itself with delicious Christmas decorations. Traditionally, the nativity scene is held on December 8, taking advantage of the holiday offered by celebrating the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, which officially marks the beginning of waiting for the Savior.

According to another tradition, however, it is appropriate that the famous nativity scene is ready on November 29, which marks the beginning of the Novena of the Immaculate Conception.

When to unveil/add Baby Jesus

Following tradition, the evening before the birth of Jesus – signalled by the angels – surprises the shepherds, who approach the hut with curiosity. Baby Jesus is placed in swaddling clothes on the straw of the manger, next to the ox and the donkey, who warm him with their breath.

It is usually at midnight on December 24, when Christmas is official that the newborn Jesus is positioned in the hut with Mary and Joseph. Some people already put Baby Jesus in position when they make the crib and cover it with paper or fabric until midnight on Christmas.

Still, according to tradition, revealing or adding the baby would be up to the youngest or oldest member of the family.

When do the Magi arrive?

Attracted by the light of the comet star, the Magi set off from their distant country in the East to pay homage to the birth of Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Their arrival near the hut, which marks the last narrative event of the crib scene, takes place on Epiphany Day, i.e. January 6th.

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