Past notes: na­tiv­i­ties

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

Who set up the first crib?

Ac­cord­ing to St Bon­aven­ture, who wrote his ‘of­fi­cial biog­ra­phy’, it was Fran­cis of As­sisi. In 1223, in­spired by the hum­ble cir­cum­stances of Christ’s birth, St Fran­cis got per­mis­sion from Pope Hono­rius III to set up a manger with hay and a live ox and ass in a cave near the Ital­ian hill­top vil­lage of Grec­cio. He then in­vited the lo­cals to come to view the scene while he preached to them. The idea caught on and spread through­out Europe.

Were any mir­a­cles as­so­ci­ated with St Fran­cis’s crib?

Yes. Vi­sions of the Vir­gin and child were re­ported, and it was claimed that the hay around the manger mirac­u­lously ac­quired the power to cure cat­tle dis­eases.

When did na­tiv­ity scenes start to in­clude peo­ple?

When Fran­cis made his crib, the medieval church was al­ready in­cor­po­rat­ing na­tiv­ity plays into its Christ­mas rit­ual, al­though these were glit­ter­ing af­fairs, far re­moved from the hum­ble sim­plic­ity of Fran­cis’s cre­ation. Canons dressed as shep­herds would process down the nave to an im­age of the Vir­gin and child. The ado­ra­tion of the Magi was also re-en­acted, with splen­didly dressed kings guided to the al­tar by a can­dlelit star. As time went on, cribs be­came more pop­u­lated – some­times with real-life ac­tors, some­times with fig­ures.

It was un­der a Fran­cis­can, Pope Ni­cholas IV, that the first known per­ma­nent na­tiv­ity scene was cre­ated. In 1288, he com­mis­sioned Arnolfo di Cam­bio to create a se­ries of stat­ues for a scene in the crypt of the Basil­ica di Santa Maria Mag­giore in Rome.

How ac­cu­rate are our cribs and na­tiv­ity plays?

Bi­b­li­cally speak­ing, the tra­di­tional scene of Je­sus, Mary and Joseph at­tended by shep­herds, wise men and a se­lec­tion of cu­ri­ous an­i­mals isn’t very ac­cu­rate at all. Only two of the gospels de­scribe the na­tiv­ity, with Luke men­tion­ing the shep­herds and Matthew the Magi, who ar­rive some time af­ter the birth. Nei­ther talk about the pres­ence of any an­i­mals. But don’t tell that to a ha­rassed pri­mary-school teacher look­ing to find parts in their play for a class­room of five-year olds!

A na­tiv­ity play by pupils of Nether­ton nurs­ery school in 1932

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