Vatican to unveil Nativity scene celebrating the 800th anniversary of the crèche

By Claire Giangravé
Posted Dec 6, 2023

[Religion News Service] A life-size crèche representing the Nativity will be unveiled at St. Peter’s Square on Dec. 9, celebrating the 800th anniversary of a Catholic tradition long since adopted by Christians across denominations.

The crèche has enjoyed great popularity in Italy and beyond ever since St. Francis of Assisi created the first one in 1223 in the town of Greccio, near Rome. The saint, known for his life of poverty, his love for creation and his efforts for peace in the Holy Land, had recently received the approval of his Rule for the Franciscan friars from Pope Honorius III.

In the rocky terrain of Greccio, St. Francis saw similarities to the Holy Land and asked the friars to help him bring the scene of Christ’s birth to life. “I would like to remember that Child who was born in Bethlehem, and somehow glimpse with the eyes of my body the hardships he experienced due to the lack of the things necessary for a newborn; how he was laid in a manger and how he lay on the hay between the ox and the donkey,” Francis said, according to his biographer, the Franciscan Friar Tommaso da Celano.

Many came to help Francis, carrying lamps to illuminate the chilly cave where they placed that first Nativity scene. They celebrated Mass on the manger, certainly unaware that they had started a centenary tradition.

“For St. Francis, the humble humanity of the savior, needing help from his creatures, was enough of a reason to make the people of his time see this truth,” said the Rev. Emil Kumka of the Order of Friars Minor and professor of history of the ancient and medieval church at the Pontifical University of St. Bonaventure, Seraphicum.

“He achieved this with poor but very effective means,” he added.

The crèche that will be unveiled on Dec. 9 was made by artisans in Greccio and attempts to re-create that night in 1223. A smattering of characters will frame the scene: the two nobles who helped St. Francis — Giovanni Velita and his wife Alticama — three friars and a few pastors. There will also be the figure of a priest celebrating the Eucharist, to underline the connection between the birth of Christ and his death.

The Nativity scene, placed inside a structure made to resemble the granite rocks of the cave, is meant to be enjoyed from all angles.

A statement from the Vatican’s governorate explained that a fresco in the background will show the Nativity of Greccio as it was painted by the famed Italian painter Giotto between 1295 and 1299. In front of the painting, a statue representing St. Francis of Assisi will hold the figure of the infant Jesus, which in accordance with tradition is not placed until Christmas. Next to him will be the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph.

The hand-painted characters, created from fired clay, will be draped with original clothing from the Middle Ages. The base of the structure will be an octagon, to represent the 800th anniversary of the crèche.

The Nativity will also include a small river, which is meant to underscore the role of Jesus as font of life but is also a reference to the importance of water for the environment. St. Francis wrote “Canticle of the Creatures,” a poem honoring creation and the environment, which inspired the title of Pope Francis’ “green encyclical” from 2015, “Laudato Si’.”

In 2019, the pope published an apostolic letter, “Admirabile Signum,” celebrating the tradition of the crèche and encouraging faithful to place one in their homes and in public spaces, including hospitals, schools and prisons.

“Representing the event of the birth of Jesus is equivalent to announcing the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God with simplicity and joy,” Pope Francis wrote. “As we contemplate the Christmas scene we are invited to set out on a spiritual journey, attracted by the humility of Him who became man to meet every man.”

Pope Francis especially underlined the tradition of showing the humility of Jesus’ birth, surrounded by ruins, animals and poor people. “The Nativity scene teaches that humans are equal regardless of social position,” Kumka said. “It represents to those on the margins that the presence of God is with them — humble and poor and close to those who have nothing materially and even spiritually.”

But he added that it also teaches those who are wealthy about the need to share. “There is no difference between people before God; he was born for every person, every one of his creatures,” added Kumka, who is an expert of the biographies of St. Francis.

The pope will meet with the creators and sponsors of the crèche at the Vatican on Saturday morning. He will also meet with a group from the Alpine town of Macra who donated a fir tree that is over 90 feet tall and, at 56 years old, was going to be cut due to damage to its trunk. The tree will be covered in 7,000 dried edelweiss flowers to give the effect of falling snow. The company donating the flowers is committed to protecting the environment.

The president of the Vatican Governorate, Cardinal Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, and its secretary-general, Sister Raffaella Petrini, will attend the inauguration and illumination ceremony on Saturday.

Another Nativity scene, created with Venetian mosaic tiles made of glass, will be placed in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, where Pope Francis usually delivers his weekly audiences during the colder months of the year. It will show St. Francis and St. Clare in adoration of the birth of Jesus.

As in previous years, the Vatican Department for Evangelization will showcase Nativity scenes from 22 countries, including Ukraine, Russia, Taiwan and the United States. Surrounding St. Peter’s colonnade, the 120 crèches will highlight the diversity of the tradition around the world, including one that is entirely mechanical and another cut in the shape of a traditional Italian coffee machine. Numerous groups and entities have donated the crèches for the exhibit, which is part of the initiatives leading up to the 2025 Jubilee year.

“The Nativity scene in its most varied and picturesque representations has the potential to create not only cultural and social bonds, but above all relationships between human beings,” Kumka said, adding that the universal nature of the crèche can bring people together “regardless of the professed faith of those who meet in front of the Nativity.”

As per tradition, the tree and crèche in St. Peter’s Square will remain on display there until the feast of the Baptism of Christ on Jan. 7. The crèche will be placed in the town of Rieti on permanent exhibition, while the tree will be cut and its wood used to make toys to be handed out to children by the Catholic charity network Caritas.