It was St Francis of Assisi who introduced the custom of having a crib for Christmas back in 1223. However, it was only in 1617 that the first crib was built on the island of Malta and exhibited by the Dominican Friars in their church in Rabat.
At the time, only the rich and noble could afford to have cribs. Heavily influenced by the Neapolitan style, these cribs featured statuettes made from wax or ivory, dressed in rich textiles. The cribs also featured intricate landscapes. Various rich people brought these statuettes to Malta, however they weren’t well received by the local people. The expensive figurines were a far call from the poverty in which Jesus was born.
The Maltese identified more with the Sicilian style of crib making probably because Sicily’s landscape was very close to that of Malta. They took inspiration from local trades, costumes and buildings so that their crib represented the Maltese way of life.
In the beginning, most cribs were made out of rustic stone and coal residues. However, these two elements were then replaced by papier-mâché. The latter made cribs more solid and lightweight. However, it also meant that cribs couldn’t be as easily dismantled as before and this storage problem meant that most cribs were often destroyed after the festivities.
There was a change even in the statuettes or ‘pasturi’ used in cribs. Expensive figurines gave way to statuettes made out of clay with their faces, hands and clothes painted on. Later, these statuettes were replaced by figurines made out of plaster moulds sold at a penny each.
Way into the mid-1900s, making cribs started to lose its appeal as more importance was given to decorations such as the Christmas Tree and other easy to mount decorations. All the work involved in creating and setting up a crib put off people and those who really wanted a crib started to look for ready-made mass produced ones.
There are still people who are fond of old traditions and year after year set up exhibitions in which various hand-made cribs are displayed to the general public. It is these enthusiasts and groups like ‘The Friends of the Crib Society’ that keep cribs alive today!
Mary, Joseph and a baby in a manger – these three figures make up the core of the Christmas Crib. Also referred to as a nativity scene or crèche, the crib portrays the birth of baby Jesus. Other characters such as shepherds, the Magi, angels and animals are also featured.
Come Christmas time, many houses, churches and shopping malls feature a crib. However this custom started almost a thousand years ago. St Francis of Assisi is regarded as the person who set up the first crib way back in 1223. At the time, he was concerned the feast was becoming too materialistic so he wanted to remind people of the true meaning of Christmas: God, out of his immense love, sent his only son to the world to be born in poverty.
St Francis of Assisi wanted to recreate that magical night so he found people, a stable with animals and straw and created the first ‘live’ crib. The tradition spread from Italy to the rest of the Christian world.
Between the 16th to the 18th centuries, cribs – especially static cribs – became quite elaborate works of art. Some featured wax or ivory figurines dressed in very rich fabrics set against intricate scenes. These expensive cribs were very popular in Naples. In other parts of the world however people focused on creating a more realistic portrayal of the birth of Jesus.
Both live and static cribs are still popular to this day. There are many people who create their own crib out of wood and paper. In some countries, cribs are given a more ‘local’ feel so that they resonate more with the people. For instance in Colombia, Mary and Joseph wear ponchos and country clothes and characters are depicted as Colombian natives. In some European countries, figures have Western features.
In some live cribs, it’s not only the nativity scene that is recreated but the village of Bethlehem! There are horse-drawn mills, shepherds inhabiting caves, animals in barns and actors showing folkloristic trades. Underneath the moonlight, by the light radiating from fires and torches, visitors are taken back in time and can just imagine what it could have been like on that silent night.