The traditional and much-awaited Christmas tree lighting and unveiling of the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square took place Dec. 5, before a crowd of hundreds of onlookers.

The ceremony, which was presided over by Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello and Bishop Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, respectively President and Secretary General of the Governorate of Vatican City State, was accompanied by traditional chants, marching bands and flag twirlers from the historical region of Triveneto in northern Italy, where both the nativity scene and the tree come from.

The crib, from Scurelle (Trentino), is made almost entirely of local wood. It consists of two log cabins, reminiscent of traditional alpine lodges called caseras, that house 23 life-sized figures as well as animals, plants and objects. “This small community of characters surrounding the Holy Family represents the culture and way of living of the region’s inhabitants at the beginning of the 20th century,” Lorenza Ropelato, deputy mayor of Scurelle, told EWTN.

Period clothing and other items were provided by local families, most of whom used their own ancestors’ personal belongings. Family and tradition are indeed deeply rooted in this town of 1400 inhabitants, which has been carrying out the custom of creating a new nativity scene every year for the past two decades through the ad hoc “Comitato Amici del Presepio,” which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

 

Translating Feelings into Art

The sense of community is particularly strong for the local population this year as they also commemorate the tragic Storm Adrian that devastated many parts of Triveneto during fall 2018, causing eight deaths. The city of Asiago, which provided the 85-foot fir tree that sits next to the nativity scene, was not spared by the storm.

“This nativity scene indicates the artistic expression of the faith of a population that knew how to translate its feelings into art and knew how to put it at the disposal of the Church’s universality,” Cardinal Bertello said during his speech. “Indeed, pilgrims from all over the world pass through St. Peter’s Square every day and will be able to admire — I hope not only art but above all traditions — the Christian life of a people that made history within the history of the Church.”

In Scurelle, the creation of Christmas crèches has been led by local carpenter Ivo Tomaselli, president of the Comitato Amici del Presepio since its creation in 1999. Thanks to the growing commitment of local volunteers, the nativity scenes — which were initially very simple — have become more sophisticated and gained new characters over time.

This year, several samples of wood connected to the 2018 storm, including roots and pieces of tree trunks, were placed in the crib. “For local populations, this nativity is also a symbol of rebirth and hope for their territory,” architect Lanfranco Fietta, artistic director of the nativity scene, told the Register. “This town is very small but it has produced a great work of art that can be admired by everyone in the most beautiful square in the world.”

 

More Than a Museum

Beyond the mere historical aspect, the theme focusing on local life during the World War I era a century ago was meant to embody a strong Gospel message. Indeed, as deputy mayor Ropelato pointed out, the living conditions during this period of time recall the conditions of poverty and misery in Bethlehem when Jesus Christ was born.

“This nativity is no museum, made of simple statues. It is full of meaning as it reminds us of the difficulties of mountain life and solidarity between villagers, united in the hope that Jesus’ birth generates,” he said.

 

A Genuine Way of Communicating the Gospel

The deep importance of the tradition of the Christmas crèche was highlighted recently by Pope Francis in his apostolic letter Admirabile Signum. While comparing the crèche to “a living Gospel rising up from the pages of Sacred Scripture,” the Holy Father strongly praised and encouraged “the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares.” 

At a time when militant secularism seems to ostracize every cultural practice related to Christianity, the Pope’s words came as a serious reminder to our current western societies.

He reiterated this message in an even more uncompromising way while receiving the delegations from Trentino and Veneto who donated the crib and tree to the Vatican on the morning of Dec. 5. The Christmas crèche “is a genuine way of communicating the Gospel in a world that sometimes seems to be afraid to remember what Christmas really is and blots out the Christian signs to only keep those of a banal, commercial imagination,” he said.

The custom of setting up a Christmas tree and crib in St. Peter’s Square was established by Pope St. John Paul II in 1982, with the aim of preserving and encouraging popular traditions.