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.