Catholicism, Catholic, Traditional Catholicism, Catholic Church

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D

Nativity Scenes


The beginning of Advent is the time to set up your Nativity scene ("presepio" in Italian, "crèche" in French). All of the figures are set out but for Baby Jesus; the manger itself should be left empty until Christmas Eve, when Baby Jesus arrives at midnight. This sets up a mood of anticipation; everything is in place -- but He has not yet come. Some families have a tradition of "preparing the manger" by allowing the children each evening to place a single piece of straw for each good deed they've done during the day. By the time Christmas Eve comes, Jesus will have a soft bed to lie in.

The presepio, then, becomes a scene of drama, and just as the crib is empty until Christmas Eve when Baby Jesus is added, the Three Kings should be kept away from the manger and moved closer and closer until they finally reach it, not on Christmas, but on the Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany (Twelfthnight) which begins the celebration of Our Lord's showing His divinity to the wise men. Some families might start with the Magi in a totally different room and move them closer and closer each night. When they finally arrive on Twelfthnight, Baby Jesus can be crowned and adorned in purple, the color of royalty. The St. Barbara's Day custom of forcing branches of cherry trees to blossom (or germinating wheat, as per the French practice) comes into play with regard to the creche, too: the blossoms are used to adorn the crib throughout the Christmas season.

The first presepio was created by St. Francis of Assisi when he recreated the scene of Christ's Nativity in Greccio, Italy, on Christmas Eve of A.D. 1223. This, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, is the first instance of a Mystery Play in Italy. The Saint's first biographer, Bl. Thomas of Celano (d. ca. A.D. 1255), describes the scene:

There was in that place a certain man named John, of good reputation and even better life, whom the blessed Francis particularly loved. Noble and honorable in his own land, he had trodden on nobility of the flesh and pursued that of the mind. Around fifteen days before the birthday of Christ Francis sent for this man, as he often did, and said to him, "If you wish to celebrate the approaching feast of the Lord at Greccio, hurry and do what I tell you. I want to do something that will recall the memory of that child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by." Upon hearing this, the good and faithful man hurried to prepare all that the holy man had requested.

The day of joy drew near, the time of exultation approached. The brothers were called from their various places. With glad hearts, the men and women of that place prepared, according to their means, candles and torches to light up that night which has illuminated all the days and years with its glittering star. Finally the holy man of God arrived and, finding everything prepared, saw it and rejoiced.

The manger is ready, hay is brought, the ox and ass are led in. Simplicity is honored there, poverty is exalted, humility is commended and a new Bethlehem, as it were, is made from Greccio. Night is illuminated like the day, delighting men and beasts. The people come and joyfully celebrate the new mystery. The forest resounds with voices and the rocks respond to their rejoicing. The brothers sing, discharging their debt of praise to the Lord, and the whole night echoes with jubilation. The holy man of God stands before the manger full of sighs, consumed by devotion and filled with a marvelous joy. The solemnities of the mass are performed over the manger and the priest experiences a new consolation.

The holy man of God wears a deacon's vestments, for he was indeed a deacon, and he sings the holy gospel with a sonorous voice. And his voice, a sweet voice, a vehement voice, a clear voice, a sonorous voice, invites all to the highest rewards. Then he preaches mellifluously to the people standing about, telling them about the birth of the poor king and the little city of Bethlehem. Often, too, when he wished to mention Jesus Christ, burning with love he called him "the child of Bethlehem," and speaking the word "Bethlehem" or "Jesus," he licked his lips with his tongue, seeming to taste the sweetness of these words.

The gifts of the Almighty are multiplied here and a marvelous vision is seen by a certain virtuous man. For he saw a little child lying lifeless in the manger, and he saw the holy man of God approach and arouse the child as if from a deep sleep. Nor was this an unfitting vision, for in the hearts of many the child Jesus really had been forgotten, but now, by his grace and through his servant Francis, he had been brought back to life and impressed here by loving recollection. Finally the celebration ended and each returned joyfully home.

The hay placed in the manger was kept so that the Lord, multiplying his holy mercy, might bring health to the beasts of burden and other animals. And indeed it happened that many animals throughout the surrounding area were cured of their illnesses by eating this hay. Moreover, women undergoing a long and difficult labor gave birth safely when some of this hay was placed upon them. And a large number of people, male and female alike, with various illnesses, all received the health they desired there. At last a temple of the Lord was consecrated where the manger stood, and over the manger an altar was constructed and a church dedicated in honor of the blessed father Francis, so that, where animals once had eaten hay, henceforth men could gain health in soul and body by eating the flesh of the Lamb without spot or blemish, Jesus Christ our Lord, who through great and indescribable love gave himself to us, living and reigning with the Father and Holy Spirit, God eternally glorious forever and ever, Amen. Alleluia! Alleluia!

St. Bonaventure, who wrote another biography of St. Francis,1 described the institution of the crib like this:

Now three years before his death it befell that he was minded, at the town of Greccio, to celebrate the memory of the Nativity of the Child Jesus, with all the added solemnity that he might, for the kindling of devotion. That this might not seem an innovation, he sought and obtained license from the Supreme Pontiff, and then made ready a manger, and bade that hay, together with an ox and ass, be brought unto the spot. The friars were called together, the folk assembled, the wood echoed with their voices, and that august night was made radiant and solemn with many bright lights, and with tuneful and sonorous praises. The man of God, filled with tender love, stood before the manger, bathed in tears, and overflowing with joy.

Solemn Masses were celebrated over the manger, Francis, the levite of Christ, chanting the Holy Gospel. Then he preached unto the folk standing around at the Birth of the King of poverty, calling Him, when he wished to name Him, the Child of Bethlehem, by reason of his tender love for Him. A certain knight, valorous and true, Messer Giovanni di Greccio, who for the love of Christ had left the secular army and was bound by closest friendship unto the man of God, declared that he beheld a little Child right fair to see, sleeping in that manger, who seemed to be awakened from sleep when the blessed Father Francis embraced Him in both arms. This vision of the devout knight is rendered worthy of belief, not alone through the holiness of him that beheld it, but is also confirmed by the truth that it set forth, and withal proven by the miracles that followed it. For the example of Francis, if meditated upon by the world, must needs stir up sluggish hearts unto the faith of Christ; for even the hay that was taken from the manger by the folk proved a marvellous remedy for sick beasts, and a preventative against divers other plagues, God magnifying by all means His servant, and making manifest by clear and miraculous portents the efficacy of his holy prayers.

St. Francis's "Institution of the Crib" was captured in the painting by Giotto below (A.D. 1297-1300).

The scene of the Nativity is usually depicted as a cave or a simple wooden structure, but some manger scenes are set in churches or homes instead. Some show just the place of His birth, while others depict the entire village (these large depictions of Bethlehem are known as "belén" in Spain). Some shred time, depicting stories from the Old Testament alongside the story of the Nativity, and some shred space in the same manner, with the village looking very much like the town of the person setting up the scene. They can be incredibly complex or simple, made of fine ceramics or of wood or paper. But in all cases, the basics of the Nativity Scene are Mary (on Christ's right, or our left as we face the manger), St. Joseph (to Christ's left, or our right as we face the manger), at least one angel, the three Magi, at least one shepherd, a lamb as the shepherds' offering and symbolizing the Sacrifice of Christ, and the ox and the ass. That Jesus lay between an ox and an ass is ascertained from Isaias 1:3:

The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel hath not known me, and my people hath not understood.

The presence of the ass also foreshadows Palm Sunday. In fact, it is said that as a reward for the donkey's using its breath to warm Baby Jesus, a Cross was marked on its and its progeny's backs so that Jesus would recognize it for use at His entry into Jerusalem.

Other animals you might find in the manger scenes are the Magis' camels (added with the Magi on Twelfth Night), the peacock symbolizing immortality, and a cat -- usually a cat with kittens. The cat -- la Gatta della Madonna -- is based on an old Christmas legend that a tabby cat gave birth to kittens in the stable as Mary gave birth to Jesus. Said kitty purred Baby Jesus to sleep, and as a reward, the letter M, for Mary, was put on its forehead, and, so, all tabby cats today still proudly display M's on their heads.2

Other figures can be added, and often are, especially in Italy, Mexico, and Southern France, where exquisite and elaborate presepi are the rule. You might see a kneeling St. Francis, Mary's midwife, one of the Sibyls, La Befana (the old woman who visits children on Epiphany Eve) -- even popular contemporary figures. Townspeople are often added, especially in Italy, and in France, where the figures, called "santons," represent tradesmen and the old guilds.

In Naples, presepi are extremely elaborate. You'll find figures to represent each month: a butcher for January; a cheesemaker for February; a poultry-seller for March; an egg-seller for April; a cherry-seller for May; a baker for June; a tomato vendor for July; a watermelon seller for August; a farmer for September; a wine-seller for October; a chestnut-seller for November; and a fishmonger for December.

You'll also invariably find a shepherd-bagpiper, or "zampognaro." The zampognari figures are based on the Italian tradition of the shepherds' (especially of Abruzzi and Lazio) coming down from the mountains at Christmastime, going door-to-door to play bagpipes to announce the birth of Christ. This tradition continues today, and is so beloved that the zampognaro appears in Italian presepi, sometimes accompanied by the pifferai (flute players) that often accompany the pipers in real life. Click below to hear the traditional Sicilian carol of the bagpipers, "Canzoni di Zampognari," whose lyrics in a strange Italian are below.

Quanno nascette Ninno a Betelem me,
E rannotee pa rea miezo giorno
Maje le stelle, lusteree belle,
Seve dettero accusi!
La chiu lucen to
Jet tea chiamma li
Magi, in Oriente
    When Christ our Lord was born in Bethlehem afar,
Although 'twas night,
There shone as bright as noon, a star.
Never so brightly, never so whitely,
Shone the stars,
As on that night!
The Brightest star went
Away to call the Wise Men from the Orient.

And here is the most popular of all Italian Christmas songs, one strongly associated with the music of the zampognari and similar to the song above: "Te Scendi Dalle Stelle" ("From Starry Skies Descending"), written by St. Alphonsus de Liguori (A.D. 1696-1787) and amended by Pope Pius IX (A.D. 1792-1878).

Tu scendi dalle stelle
O Re del Cielo
E vieni in una grotta
Al freddo al gelo

O Bambino mio Divino
Io ti vedo qui a tremar,
O Dio Beato
Ah, quanti ti costo
L'avermi amato

A te che sei del mondo,
Il creatore
Mancano panni e fuoco,
O mio Signore

Caro eletto, Pargoletto,
Quanto questa povertà,
Piu m'innamora
Giacche ti fece
Amor povero ancora
    From starry skies descending,
Thou comest, glorious King,
A manger low Thy bed,
In winter's icy sting;

O my dearest Child most holy,
Shudd'ring, trembling in the cold!
Great God, Thou lovest me!
What suff'ring Thou didst bear,
That I near Thee might be!

Thou art the world's Creator,
God's own and true Word,
Yet here no robe, no fire
For Thee, Divine Lord.

Dearest, fairest, sweetest Infant,
Dire this state of poverty.
The more I care for Thee,
Since Thou, O Love Divine,
Will'st now so poor to be.

I can't leave the topic of nativity scenes in Italy without mentioning a "new tradition" that takes place in Laveno-Mombello, in the Province of Varese in Lombardy. Underwater divers there swam to the bottom of  Lake Maggiore a week before Christmas in 1979 and set up a creche -- only three pieces at first, the figures of the Holy family which had, of course, been blessed by a priest. Since then, figures have been added such that it's grown rather elaborate, consisting of 42 lifesize statues as I write. Each year they set up the presepio and leave it until the Epiphany -- but it's only complete when, on Christmas Eve, the town's oldest and most recently married couples carry the figure of the Baby Jesus from the Church of SS. Filippo and Giacomo to the lake, in procession with the local faithful. Then divers do their work, swimming down to tuck Jesus into His manger, and finishing by lighting up the scene with underwater lights such that it's visible at night from the lake's edge.

In Cesenatico, on the Eastern coast of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, life-sized, wood-carved creche figures are set up on boats in the harbor on the first Sunday of December, and are left until the Epiphany.

Elsewhere in Italy, in towns as disparate as Custonaci, Dogliani, Greccio, Matera, Morcone, Pietrelcina, and Resuttano, living nativities are displayed. The one in Greccio, where St. Francis invented the creche tradition, is the most elaborate: from Christmas Eve to the Epiphany, six scenes from the life of St. Francis -- based on the aforementioned texts by St. Bomaventure and Thomas of Celano -- and the birth of Christ are dramatized in splendid detail.

Blessing of the Christmas Crib and Tree

This blessing come from "Christmas Missal" by Reverend Aloisius J. Muench, 1951. It can be downloaded in pdf format (I've included the lyrics to the Christmas hymns mentioned in the pdf):

The prayers may be said by the Father or Mother.

In the little procession formed by the children, the youngest is allowed to place the figure of the Christ Child in the manger. The tree lights should not burn until the blessing of the tree begins.

All sing: HOLY NIGHT.

Father: Our help is in the name of the Lord.

All: Who made heaven and earth.

Father: Let us pray. Almighty, everlasting God, pour down your blessings on this Crib, which we have set up in memory of the Birth of your Divine Son, Jesus Christ (he sprinkles the crib with holy water). Help us to remember, we beg you, each time we look at it, that Jesus came down to us at Bethlehem because He loved us. Let it remind us, too, O Heavenly Father, that the presents we give and those we receive, are given and received in memory of His love. Give peace to our home, O Lord, and peace to the world, so that we may live with our own family and with all men in hap- piness; through the same Jesus Christ your Son, who lives and rules with you in union with the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Amen.

All sing: AWAY IN A MANGER, or some other hymn, while moving to the tree.

Father: O Lord Jesus Christ, we humbly beg you to bless this tree (he sprinkles it with holy water) which we have decorated with ornaments and lights in honor of your birth in Bethlehem. Grant that our souls may also wear the ornaments of good deeds; and make the light of virtue shine in us, so that we may draw all men to you. Amen.

All sing: O COME, ALL YE FAITHFUL, or some other well-known hymn.

Prayer Before the Crib

I adore Thee, O Word Incarnate, true Son of God from all eternity, and true Son of Mary ever Virgin in the fullness of time. When I adore Thy divine Person, and the Humanity united to Thy Divinity, I venerate the poor manger which welcomed Thee when an Infant, and which was truly the throne of Thy love. I prostrate myself before it with the simplicity of the shepherds, with the faith of Joseph, with the love of Mary. I bow down in veneration of this precious memorial of our salvation with the same spirit of mortification, poverty and humility with which Thou, though the Lord of heaven and earth, didst choose for Thyself a manger wherein to lay Thy tender infant limbs. And Thou, O Lord, Who in Thine Infancy didst deign to lay Thyself in this manger, vouchsafe also to pour into my heart a drop of that joy to which the sight of Thy lovely Childhood, and the miracles which accompanied Thy Birth, gave rise. By that holy Birth, I now implore Thee to grant to all the world peace and goodwill, and in the name of the whole human race I render thanks and honour to God the Father, and to God the Holy Spirit, Who with Thee live and reign one God world without end. Amen.


1 Both Thomas of Celano's and St. Bonaventure's biographies of St. Francis can be found in this site's Catholic Library.

2 Two tabby tom-kittens, Rocco ("Rocky") and Mario ("Boots"), with perfect letter M's for Mary on their foreheads:

Back to Customs of the Liturgical Year
Back to Being Catholic