This baroque Bethlehem scene, crafted in the 17th century by the monk Kaspar, includes 48 figures made from straw, paper, gypsum.

This baroque Bethlehem scene, crafted in the 17th century by the monk Kaspar, includes 48 figures made from straw, paper, gypsum.

December 19, 2011

Nativity scenes are one of the most recognizable and loved Christmas customs today and the words crèche and manger have come to describe the depiction of Christ's birth.

The word crèche is the French word for nativity scene which translates into crib in English. That and other translations are derived from the Latin word cripia, meaning manger.

In Italy the word presepio means manger or crib and is thought to have been used for the first time to describe St Mary Major's Basilica on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, known since the seventh century as Sancta Maria ad praesepe because below the altar of the church is a reliquary said to contain pieces of the original manger.

It's kept in a niche the same dimensions as the cave where Jesus was born. It was in this church that the earliest presepio was installed as a permanent fixture in a side chapel for the first Rome jubilee in 1300.


Specifically though, the modern presepio is a three dimensional representation of the birth of Jesus Christ composed of mobile figures arranged according to the artistic sense of the builder as well as realistic elements such as houses, rocks, plants etc.

The presepio cannot be separated from the scenery. In fact without scenery around the figures representing the holy event, it becomes a model of the nativity but not a presepio.

The tradition of a permanent presepio on view all the year round in a side chapel remained until the 16th century. It then underwent another evolution when St. Cajeta (d.1547) of Naples started to carve figures from everyday life for the presepio.

This development was widely copied and reached its climax during the Baroque and Rococo periods (1600s and 1700s) when everyday village characters such as the washerwoman and the cripple were included.

The Council of Trent (1543 to 1563) encouraged the use of the presepio as an expression of popular piety and the Jesuits and Franciscans took the tradition with them when they set out to evangelize both Europe and the recently discovered lands of the New World.


In the 18th century, a presepio that was commissioned by Charles II of Naples started the Naples style nativity, which today still includes figures from everyday life. Six master woodcarvers worked on the scene from 1780 through 1820, adding new figures each year.

The Holy Family and the procession of the Magi were placed in a setting that portrayed contemporary life in 18th century Naples. Ordinary people were shown going about their ordinary lives - shoemakers and innkeepers, bakers and fruit vendors, fishmongers and butchers, carpenters and blacksmiths, and the beggars, the poor and the derelict.

There is always the market with its fruit and vegetables, hams, fish, shellfish, salamis and sausages, cheeses, olives, the butcher's shop with beef and pork, rabbit and game, pizza, macaroni, eggs.

Figurines representing royalty were dressed in fine fabrics fashioned by the queen and court damsels. The presepio became so popular that in the late 1700s shops even sold miniature jewels to ornate the figurines.

The Neapolitan presepio is now regarded as a true form of art and perhaps the best known one in America is the Neapolitan Baroque Crèche displayed annually at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

In centuries-old workshops and artist studios in Naples, the tradition continues and artisans sculpt everything from traditional 18th-century figures to contemporary figures that include politicians and movie stars.

Traditionally, the main focus of Christmas decorations in Italy remains the presepio. They can be found in public squares, shops and other public areas including one that is erected on the Spanish Stairs.

In 17th century France, mechanical, portable presepio became popular. The portable presepio was a sort of theatre with puppets which told the Christmas story of the birth of the Saviour.

However, the French Revolution swept away every type of presepio and it was only with the Concordat reached between Pius VII and Napoleon that the presepio tradition returned.

In the early 19th century a figure maker, Jean Louis Lagnel, started producing inexpensive clay statues called santons or "little saints." So even the poorest of families could afford clay figures and the tradition spread to the humblest of homesteads. Today, nearly every French home at Christmas time displays a crèche, which serves as the focus for the Christmas celebration.


The tradition of Nativity displays is also popular in German-speaking countries, particular those rooted in the Catholic faith. Many regions still keep the custom of "searching for an inn" for which small nativity scenes are carried from home to home, looking precisely for "somewhere to stay."

Nativity scenes called szopka in Poland are extremely ornate structures, often modelled on St. Mary's Basilica in Krakow. They can be up to two metres high and three metres wide.

They have three parts: the upper level shows angels announcing the birth of Jesus, the centre level shows the Nativity scene and the lower level shows Polish peasants and the three wise men. Portable szopka are carried from house to house by children who sing carols.

Likewise in Hungary the "Bethlehem" in the shape of a church or a little chest is also carried from house to house by children sometimes dressed as angels, who sing and dance.

In Spain children to go from home to home carrying a basket bearing a portable presepio which they uncover as they sing Christmas carols and receive gifts and sweets.

In Russia the wertep consists of a chest with two levels decorated with a Christmas star and animated with puppets. The upper level shows the religious scene: the adoration of the Magi, the massacre of the Holy Innocents and the death of Herod. The lower floor exhibits scenes of daily life.


In Mexico, often an entire room of a home is needed to display a nacimiento that features hundreds of figures and other pieces that represent a village surrounding the stable.

Among the figures are women making tortillas, farmers milking cows, mothers nursing infants, vegetable and pottery merchants, and shepherds. They may also include the Garden of Eden, St. John the Baptist, Herod's soldiers destroying the innocent children, Jesus at the well with Mary Magdalene, Mary at the base of the cross, and other biblical scenes.

Today, almost 800 years later after the first Nativity was created by St. Francis in the village of Greccio near Assisi, the portrayal of the Christmas story has taken root around the world, and it has its expression in almost every culture around the globe.

(Theresa Hanley is a correspondent with The New Freeman for the Diocese of Saint John, N.B. She can be reached at