By Don Meyer
CHICAGO, IL (December 25, 2011) – You find them in varying styles in all kinds of places throughout the world during the Christmas season. There were more than three dozen of them displayed in Evangelical Covenant Church offices this year.
The nativity – or crèche – depicts the story of the birth of Jesus.
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 in a cave near Greccio, Italy, using humans and animals. Within a hundred years, the practice had spread to the majority of Catholic churches throughout Italy. Near the end of that century, the living figures had for the most part been replaced with statues, often positioned in elaborate settings and found not only in cathedrals, but in individual homes as well.
St. Francis, it is told, had become concerned over the commercialization of Christmas. He created that first living nativity as a highly visible reminder that worshipping Christ is the central focus of the Christmas celebration rather than the secular practice of exchanging gifts.
Nativities are as varied and diverse as the cultures that craft them, each incorporating nuances of their own life experiences as they portray what the birth of Christ would have looked like viewed through their cultural lens. It is no surprise, then, that in some cultures, Yaks and water buffalo replace cattle and sheep, with others incorporating the oriental landscapes of Asia and still others the grass-thatched roofs of Africa.
The more traditional nativity scenes involve a stable or cave with either free-standing figurines or figures that have been cast as a single piece or carved into wood, stone, metal or some other material. Some stretch horizontally on a wire or string. Others, such as one carved from ebony in the Democratic Republic of Congo, are vertical and quite heavy.
Germans found an intriguing way to tell the story through multi-level wooden pyramid “trees” that spin as heat from lighted candles turns wooden paddles at the top. Each level contains figures tracing the story from the journey to Bethlehem to the shepherds in the fields, usually with angels adorning the top with their trumpets, proclaiming the child’s birth.
One small nativity on display at Covenant offices comes from Spain – etched metal arranged in two hinged panels resembling arched stained glass windows that are a familiar sight in the cathedrals. On another work area shelf, four small clay figures from Colombia show Mary holding the Christ child standing alongside Joseph – each with a metal halo attached.
The halo motif is also prevalent in nativities created by artists in Mexico – small spikes with miniature balls at the ends protrude from the head of Mary and the angel announcing Christ’s birth.
Some sets from Thailand add elephants to the animals they would expect to find at the manger in Bethlehem. A Nepal nativity also substitutes the Yak for a donkey or sheep.
Kyrgyzstan artists conceive the manager more as a mobile house – called a Yurt – designed to collapse to allow easy transport from place to place. Most of these nativities are made from animal skins – the one at Covenant offices was constructed using beaten wool.
Some nativities are small – so tiny that they are easily overlooked at first. Some stand large, with the entire scene carved into a massive piece of material. Some are made from clay, others from glass, metal, wood, stone, ceramic and a variety of cloth and woven fabrics.
To see a more extensive sampling of the varied nativities that have been displayed this year, visit the Nativity Photo Gallery.
Although the artistic renderings vary, the story each tells remains timeless and unchanged: “Today, in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” This same Christ is as alive today as on the day of his birth, living in and working through his followers to bring tidings of peace and goodwill to all the inhabitants of the earth.
May this special day be a blessed one for all as we, too, remember the true reason for this season of celebration.