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Nativity scene outside St Peter's Square at the Vatican. Alamy Stock Photo
nativity scene

How accurate are our Christmas cribs?

Is it problematic to depict the Holy Family as being white, and why do some Spanish cribs have a defecating figurine?

THE LIVE ANIMAL crib returned to Dublin this Christmas, though in a different location, and you may have your very own crib perched somewhere in your house.

But what is the origin of this Christmas tradition, does it matter what ethnicity we present the Holy Family as being, and why is there a defecating figurine in some Spanish nativities?

We spoke to Dr Andrew Pierce, Assistant Professor at Trinity College Dublin’s School of Religion, about the Biblical and historical accuracy of our Christmas cribs. 

So what does the crib show?

Pierce says Jesus’ father Joseph is “described as a carpenter, which is a menial worker and a pretty rough existence”.

He adds that some scholars describe Joseph as a “first century Mediterranean peasant”.

Meanwhile, “Mary is presented as a young Palestinian girl who is pregnant, and they’re sent off to Bethlehem from Nazareth because somebody somewhere wants to count people for tax purposes”.

When they reach Bethlehem to take part in the census, “there was no room for them in the inn”, so Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable and “laid him in a manger”.

“If you are in Rome, the relics of Christ’s crib are kept in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore,” said Pierce.

“Or if you are in Bethlehem, the traditional site of Christ’s birth is beneath the Church of the Nativity.”

However, many artistic flourishes have been added to the scene of the birth of Jesus over the centuries.

Before we get to the artistic flourishes, when did the tradition of having nativity scenes begin?

Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223, who made a replica of the birth-scene as it had been described in Luke’s Gospel. 

Staged in a cave near Greccio in Italy, Saint Francis’ nativity scene was a living one with humans and animals cast in the Biblical roles.

Pierce said: “The key reason was to highlight dramatically the poverty in which Jesus had lived and died, and make this visible to the Christians of his age. The tradition grew and became popular and somewhat sanitised.”

Human and animal participants soon gave way to figurines, and within a century every Catholic church in Italy was expected to have one and the nativity scene then made its way into the home.

So were there animals around the crib?

Despite the popular Christmas carol ‘Away in a Manger’ declaring that “the cattle were lowing”, there is no mention of animals being present at the birth of Jesus in the Gospels.

The Gospels of Luke and Matthew and the only canonical gospels (the other two being John and Mark) to feature infancy narratives.

In Luke’s Gospel, “shepherds living out in the fields nearby” receive news of Jesus’ birth when an angel appears to them, and they hurry off to see the infant “who was lying in a manger”.

So while Luke places shepherds at the manger, there no is mention of any sheep having followed them to the manger.

Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI wrote in a book on the infancy narratives: “In the gospels, there is no mention of animals.”

Some scholars say Mary and Joseph would have travelled to Bethlehem on a donkey, which could account for a donkey being by the crib.

However, in his book Pope Benedict XVI conceded, “No nativity scene will ever give up its ox and donkey”, and indeed animals are present in nativity scenes in St Peter’s Square.

Where there really “Three Wise Men” around the crib?

Most nativity scenes also depict Three Wise Men, also referred to as the Three Magi, around the manger following Jesus’ birth.

The Gospel of Matthew is the only one of the four canonical gospels to mention the “Magi” visiting the infant Jesus.

Magi were priests in Zoroastrianism, which is one of the oldest organised religions and has its roots in Iran.

However, Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t mention a specific number of Magi.

It does however mention three gifts, of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and it’s thought this is why many denominations depict Three Wise Men.

“The “threeness” is sort of something that’s developed over time by tradition, and eventually they develop names,” says Pierce.

Melchoir, Caspar, and Balthazar are the three names often given.

“If you go traveling along parts of the of the ancient Silk routes, you’ll even begin to see where they they’re described as coming.

“One of the words used to describe them are Magi, that these are priests coming from the Far East,” said Pierce.

Nor does Matthew’s Gospel place the Magi at the manger following Jesus’ birth, as do most nativity scenes.

Matthew’s Gospel describes this meeting as happening “after Jesus was born” and states that the meeting took place in a “house”, and not a stable.

The placing of the Magi with the shepherds is typically understood to be an artistic convention which allows the infancy narratives from the gospels of Matthew and Luke to be easily combined.

And did Jesus’ birth take place in an inn?

It did, but the definition of the word “inn” could be somewhat different from what we typically mean when we use that term today.

When we use the term “inn”, we usually mean a guesthouse or a B&B.

However, the word “inn” in Luke’s Gospel most likely refers to spare room inside someone’s home.

In addition to this, Bethlehem was the native town of Joseph, so he and Mary likely sought lodging with relatives but found there was no room and hence had to seek refuge in the stable.

Nativity scenes in Ireland typically present a white family; is this problematic?

Some people argue that it is problematic that we mostly depict the Holy Family as being white (recall Pierce describing Mary as a Palestinian), while others say every culture tries to mirror the Holy Family in their own image.

Pierce says “it’s a bit of both”.

“The risk is, if you don’t recognise yourself in something, it can be very hard to be empathetic with it.

“On the other hand, if you over identify yourself with it, then something essential is missing; it’s lost its own distinctiveness and you’ve just turned it into something all about you, which isn’t how it is meant to be.

“In some ways, a lot of popular religious art has been extremely bad at doing that, but there’s also some extremely good and very unsettling religious art which gets across that sense of divine vulnerability that those stories of cribs are meant to emphasise for us.”

Why is the nativity scene so enduring?

“If Christianity had simply been told in terms of doctrines and that kind of abstract language, it would never have taken off,” says Pierce.

“This is a story of a mother and the baby that so many people can relate with, either because it’s something that speaks to them with something that’s powerful in their own life or it’s something they missed.

“It’s a very potent symbol and it is really quite startling that God is prepared to submit himself to this extreme level of risk by being born in a stable.”

So what about this defecating figure in Spanish cribs?

“In some parts of Catalonia and up into the Basque region,” says Pierce, “you have this very strange little figure who appears in traditional cribs who rejoices, I’m afraid, in the name of ‘The Crapper’.”

The exact origins of “El Caganer” (which literally translate as “The Pooper”) are unknown but the tradition has existed since at least the 18th century.  

The Caganer can also be found in parts of Portugal and south Italy.

“It’s a man having a crap in the corner of the stable,” explains Pierce.

Cagner El Caganer can be seen in the right hand corner.

“So you’ve got all your other stable furniture, you’ve got Baby Jesus, and his mother and Joseph, and angels and shepherds, but your man is there as well.

“It’s a great little feature of this particular sort of south-Mediterranean culture of trying to remind us that the story of the stable, which can become really corny that it almost looks like it’s a lovely, warm, clean stable with designer straw and what have you.

“I mean, this was a pretty shitty place. And not just because of the animals, but because of the humans who are here. 

“Take a look into any stables at the time, this was a pretty shitty place and it’s not exactly the place where you’d be choosing to enter the world.”

“So if you want to have a Jesus who is the Son of God, who embraces the human condition, then the human condition is quite a mixed bag, and this reminds of us that.”

In recent years, celebrities have been represented in the figure of the Caganer, as seen below.

a-worker-paints-a-u-s-democratic-presidential-candidate-joe-biden-caganer-in-a-pottery-in-torroella-de-montgri-near-girona-spain-october-20-2020-reutersnacho-doce A worker paints a Joe Biden caganer, in a pottery in Torroella de Montgri, near Girona, Spain. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

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