When asked about the origin of these old folk customs, one sometimes finds it hard to answer. They have come down to us through the centuries out of the gray past. Some are so old that they go back to pre-Christian times, having been baptized together with the people and turned from pagan into Christian customs. But, once in a while, we know how one or another custom originated.
The Christmas crib, as we have it today, goes back to St. Francis of Assisi. Not that he was the one who made the first crèche; this devotion is almost as old as the Church. We are told that the very place of Christ’s birth and the manger in which He lay “wrapped in swaddling clothes” were already venerated in Bethlehem in the first centuries of the Christian era. Later, devout people substituted a silver manger for the original one and built a basilica over it, and, with the centuries, the veneration of the Holy Child lying in the manger spread all over the Christian countries.
More and more ceremonies sprang up around this devotion, until, in medieval times, they had grown into a real theater performance—drama, opera, and ballet combined. Finally, Pope Honorius had to put a stop to this, for it had grown into an abuse. A generation later, St. Francis of Assisi got permission for his famous Christmas celebration in the woods of Greccio near Assisi on Christmas Eve 1223.
Francis and the Crèche
His first biographer, Thomas of Celano, tells us how it happened:
It should be recorded and held in reverent memory what Blessed Francis did near the town of Greccio, on the feast day of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, three years before his glorious death. In that town lived a certain man by the name of John (Messer Giovanni Velitta) who stood in high esteem, and whose life was even better than his reputation.
Blessed Francis loved him with a special affection because, being very noble and much honored, he despised the nobility of the flesh and strove after the nobility of the soul.
Blessed Francis often saw this man. He now called him about two weeks before Christmas and said to him: “If you desire that we should celebrate this year’s Christmas together at Greccio, go quickly and prepare what I tell you; for I want to enact the memory of the Infant who was born at Bethlehem and how He was deprived of all the comforts babies enjoy; how He was bedded in the manger on hay between an ass and an ox. For once I want to see all this with my own eyes.” When that good and faithful man had heard this, he departed quickly and prepared in the above-mentioned place everything that the Saint had told him.
The joyful day approached. The Brethren [the Friars who had gathered around St. Francis] were called from many communities. The men and women of the neighborhood, as best they could, prepared candles and torches to brighten the night. Finally the Saint of God arrived, found everything prepared, saw it, and rejoiced. The crib was made ready, hay was brought, the ox and ass were led to the spot…. Greccio became a new
Bethlehem. The night was made radiant like the day, filling men and animals with joy. The crowds drew near and rejoiced in the novelty of the celebration. Their voices resounded from the woods, and the rocky cliffs echoed the jubilant ou-t burst. As they sang in praise of God the whole night rang with exultation. The Saint of God stood before the crib, over come with devotion and wondrous joy. A solemn Mass was sung at the crib.
The Saint, dressed in deacon’s vestments, for a deacon he was, sang the Gospel. Then he preached a delightful sermon to the people who stood around him, speaking about the nativity of the poor King and the humble town of Bethlehem…. And whenever he mentioned the Child of Bethlehem or the Name of Jesus, he seemed to lick his lips as if he would happily taste and swallow the sweetness of that word.”
That is the beginning of the crèche as we know it in our day. St. Francis’s idea of bringing Bethlehem into one’s own town spread quickly all over the Christian world, and when there was a Christmas crib in every church, the families began to reenact the birth of Christ in their home too. With loving imagination, more or less elaborately, the little town of Bethlehem would be reconstructed. There would be the cave with the manger, “because there was no room at the inn,” and the figures would be carved in wood or modeled in clay or worked after the fashion of puppets. They also might be drawn and painted and then glued on wood.
In some countries, whole valleys would take up the carving of these figures—as in Tyrolia and southern Bavaria. Some of these crèches are works of great art. On the long winter evenings, during the weeks of Advent, the people are working on them. First, the scenery is set up again, and then the figures are placed, each year seeing some new additions, until such a crib fills almost a whole room with its hundreds of figures.
Outside the town of Bethlehem, Connecticut, the nuns of the Benedictine priory called Regina Laudis have devoted a whole building to their huge Christmas crib, a Neapolitan work that was given to them as a gift. This beautiful crib could become an American shrine, the center for a pilgrimage during the Christmas season.
Just as the Reformation did away with statues and pictures of saints in Protestant churches, it also deprived many Protestant homes of the crèche. A few of the German sects, however, kept up this custom even after the Reformation and brought it to America. When the Moravians, for example, founded the town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on a Christmas Eve, they had preserved the custom of the crèche.
A Von Trapp Crèche
At home in Austria, we wanted a crèche we could make mostly by ourselves. That is why we did not buy one of the ready-made models, but went out into the woods with the children before the first snowfall and carried home stones, moss, bark, lichen, and pine cones. A large tabletop, three by five feet, was placed over two carpenter’s sawhorses and draped with green cloth. This was the foundation on which, every year, a slightly different scene would be erected by artistic young hands—the stony hill with the cave; the field, covered with moss; and shepherds in the foreground.
For the figures, we bought only the heads and hands, beautifully modeled in wax at a little store in Salzburg that sold handmade, artistically decorated candles and Lebkuchen. At home we made the foundations of the figures with wire and then dressed them with loving care. It is incredible what ingenious hands can produce with a needle and thread and remnants of dress material.
Every evening during Advent, some time was devoted to the crèche. At the end of the first week, the landscape was completed; the second week was animal week, at the end of which many little sheep were grazing on the meadow and the ox was standing in the cave. In the third week, the shepherds appeared, watching their sheep in little groups, while, in the fourth week, Mary and Joseph could be seen approaching from afar with the little ass, advancing steadily every day. Finally, on Christmas Eve, they reached the cave.
The ass joined the ox behind the empty manger. Mary was kneeling in expectation (that’s the beauty of the wire under the blue dress; the figures can kneel, stand, or sit), while St. Joseph hung up a lantern above the manger, and everyone seemed to hold their breath, waiting until just before Midnight Mass. Then, the youngest member of the family would put the little Baby in the manger, and joy would reach its height. After Midnight Mass, the figure of the big angel would appear, suspended on a long wire above the shepherds, announcing, “Glory to God in the highest.” There is no telling how much love and joy goes into the making of such a crib year after year.
Again I must go back to our first year in this country. Of course, Christmas without a crib under the tree would have meant for us that Christmas was missing something essential. The beloved figures of our Christmas crib, however, were among the things we had left behind. And so, the older children’s Christmas present to me in that memorable first year turned out to be a large, elaborate Christmas crib with the figures and the little town of Bethlehem, self-designed, cut out of cardboard, and hand-painted. Our neighbors in Germantown had kindly invited the children to help themselves to the necessary bark, moss, and stones in their gardens.
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Around the Year with the Von Trapp Family, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.