‘O Come Let Us Adore Him’: European Crèches
Marking 800 Years Since the First Crèche
Nativity scenes have been part of the Catholic tradition since St. Francis of Assisi created a living Nativity scene, complete with an ox, a donkey and a manger full of straw in the Italian mountain town of Greccio in 1223.
“The Child Jesus had been forgotten in the hearts of many,” St. Francis’ biographer, Thomas of Celano, reported, “but, by the working of divine grace, he was brought to life again through his servant Francis and stamped upon their fervent memory.”
Eight hundred years later, the mystery of that first Nativity in Bethlehem still captures the hearts of the faithful, and the various cultures of the universal Church continue to create their best representations of the day God entered our world as a helpless infant.
The Nativity scene has been a staple of domestic churches and grand cathedrals alike. Whether made elaborately by artisans in grand Neapolitan style or hand-carved of olive wood in the Holy Land, such depictions reflect the meaning of the season.
And as Father Roger Landry says in his Christmas commentary, “This Advent and Christmas, as the Church looks with gratitude to 1223, it’s important to remember the lessons of Greccio. The Child Jesus has similarly been forgotten in the hearts of many today …”
Christians in the Holy Land have been asked to mute their Christmas celebrations due to the ongoing hostilities between Israel and Hamas.
With that in mind, the Register stands prayerfully with them and other suffering Christians around the world, imploring God that the joy, wonder and grace of Christmas nevertheless touches them.
What follows is a sampling of Nativity scenes from Europe.
Wishing you the joy of the Christ Child! — The Editors
The year 2023 will be unlike any other in the historic city of St. Francis, which celebrates 800 years since the establishment of the Rule of the Friars Minor, confirmed by Pope Honorius III. This important jubilee year is also marked by another anniversary, more symbolic in scope: Francis’ creation of the very first Christmas crèche in the village of Greccio, in central Italy. According to historians, the Poverello, on his return from a great journey he made to the Holy Land in 1219, desired to reconstruct the context of Jesus Christ’s birth and thus make more concrete in the eyes of the people this event that would forever change humankind’s destiny. This tradition was later perpetuated and spread by the Franciscans across the globe and became particularly well-established in Naples.
For the 800th anniversary, through Jan. 6, 2024, the entire city of Assisi has been transformed into an “enormous open-air Nativity scene,” as announced by the local authorities. The cultural events feature a blend of tradition and technological innovation, including numerous light installations and projections on the façades of the city’s main monuments and churches, based on the theme of Giotto’s fresco cycle, which immortalized the institution of the crèche by the founder of the Franciscan Order. This year’s projections will be enhanced by a new, sophisticated and energy-efficient color gradation system. Another highlight of the celebrations, alongside creative history lessons for children and medieval music concerts, is the large living Nativity scene set up on the forecourt of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, designed in collaboration with local associations and artisans.
“In this year, which opens the great Franciscan centenaries, we want to implement as concretely as possible the Franciscan message of peace and fraternity, especially in this difficult historical moment,” said Mayor Stefania Proietti during a press conference presenting the Advent displays. “The Nativity scene brings us back to the values of humility and hope. St. Francis was the man of dialogue between East and West: Eight hundred years after the first Nativity scene in history, we want to tell the world that dialogue and friendship between peoples are the only hope for peace.”
The Nativity scene of Krakow, Poland, is a jewel in the crown of the cultural heritage of the most Catholic country in Europe — where, every year, artistic celebrations around the birth of Christ take over squares, parks, churches and historic buildings. If Krakow’s Nativity scenes were included in UNESCO’s list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage” in 2014, it’s not least because of the dynamism generated by its traditional annual contest, held every first Thursday of December since 1937, following a procession through the historic center. The winners then have their creations exhibited in the Krzysztofory Palace (part of Krakow’s Historical Museum) until February. The best works from previous years are displayed in public places throughout the city, including cafés, restaurants and stores, following thematic itineraries.
Cracovian Nativity scenes, which take the form of palaces inspired by the architecture of Krakow’s Old Town, are distinguished by their distinctive style, bearing witness to the marvels made possible by Christian inculturation over the centuries. The Holy Family thus often finds itself flanked by historical figures and symbols of the city’s history, including flags, Lajkoniks (bearded men wearing Turco-Tatar-inspired costumes, embodying the victory of Christendom over the invader), Sigismund Bells as a reference to the tower of the famous Wawel Cathedral, or Polish eagles.
Alongside this particularly popular folklore, almost all local churches exhibit their own creations, mostly inspired by a style closer to the original spirit instilled by the Franciscans. The best known of these is the mobile Nativity scene in the Church of the Bernardine Fathers (an order rooted in Franciscan spirituality), a Baroque building located at the foot of the famous Wawel Hill in the heart of Krakow. With a height of around 49 feet and a hundred or so intricately detailed figurines, the monks have to start work as early as mid-November in order to unveil it to the faithful in time for Christmas Eve. While the statue of Baby Jesus comes directly from Bethlehem, some of the figurines were made by the Bernardine brothers themselves or imported from Italy. The crib traditionally remains on display until the feast of Candlemas, Feb. 2.
The “Bethlehem scene” of the small village of Vörs in western Hungary, not far from the famous and touristy Lake Balaton, is considered to be the largest covered crèche in Europe. What makes it so special is that, every year, it is built entirely by its inhabitants, in a tradition that dates back to 1948 and that the most ruthless years of the Soviet regime (1945-1989) failed to eradicate. The crib, which is unveiled each year on the first day of Advent and remains on public display until the end of January, is installed in the local Church of St. Martin, built in the early 18th century in a late Baroque style. The size of this Central European Bethlehem, which has grown steadily over the years, is now around 650 square feet.
The assembly begins with a large wooden structure, which also forms the foundation for rolling hills and valleys leading to the cave of the Nativity. The locals then add miniature figures, human and animal, and even a small bonfire. The construction of the Nativity scene, using only natural material, features 3 cubic meters of thuja tree branches and 20 large branches of pine tree, as well as 4 cubic meters of wood.
“Locals build it, all together, as volunteers, and it is [a] real community effort that everyone does happily and with love,” Mayor Tamás Deak told Reuters in 2021. “It is a wonderful tradition.”
For this year, which marks the 75th anniversary of the initiative’s launch, the village of around 500 inhabitants was in full swing in the days leading up to its inauguration, during Mass on Dec. 3, the first day of Advent. The crib, which offers variations and innovations each year, requires around 10 days of intense, coordinated work, if only to meet the expectations of the ever-increasing number of foreign visitors. In recent years, some editions have attracted tens of thousands of visitors from other parts of the country and abroad, mainly from Germany, France and the U.S.
The tradition of santons, small hand-painted figurines placed in the Christmas crib, is emblematic of the famous Provençe region of southeastern France. Mainly made of terracotta, they can be adapted to depict and integrate the Holy Family and the Three Wise Men in the most varied cultural and historical contexts. This custom, which took root in homes in the 18th century at a time when anti-Catholic forces banned all expressions of religious devotion in public — has since become a hallmark of southern France culture. It is particularly well represented in the town of Grignan, in the heart of the Drôme department (administrative division), which each year exhibits what is billed as the world’s largest Nativity scene. Spread over an area of more than 4,300 square feet, the “Village Miniature Provençal” is divided into 70 houses and includes more than 1,200 different items that also allow visitors to rediscover the traditional trades of the last century, some of which have now disappeared.
Due to its growing success over the years, the Christmas exhibition opened its doors at the end of November and will run until mid-February, featuring traditions from all over the world, with some 80 countries represented by 450 Nativity scenes. This year, the organizers are paying special tribute to Eastern Europe, with Nativity scenes in gilded paper, ceramics or in the shape of wooden altarpieces from Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. There are also touches of inspiration from other countries, more or less distant, but united by the same still-vibrant popular faith. Ireland is well represented by a woolen crib, Burkina Faso by an all-bronze creation, and Costa Rica by a work with a seashell base. The santons from Peru are made from potato starch, while another crib is made entirely from Venetian glass — all featured in the warm, colorful atmosphere of Provençe.
Families planning to spend Christmas in Slovenia are in for a wonder-filled experience this year. Just under 50 miles from the capital, Ljubljana, the famous Postojna Cave serves as the site of the 33rd edition of the traditional “Living Nativity” through Dec. 30. This 90-minute show, performed several times a day, brings together some 100 artists from various countries, including singers, musicians, dancers and figure skaters, to offer the public a dreamlike immersion in the distinctive Christmas spirit.
The Postojna underground cave, a jewel of the Kars region — between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea — and Slovenia’s main tourist attraction, is a complex of some 15 miles of caverns and galleries, the largest in the region. Its natural setting lends itself particularly well to the artistic staging of the Living Nativity, which takes advantage of the abundance of stalagmites and stalactites formed in the limestone rocks and whose colorful illumination is a spectacle in itself.
Sixteen scenes inspired by biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus Christ follow a 3-mile itinerary, partly on board a small train and partly on foot. Musical performances accompany the entire itinerary, with traditional songs such as Ave Maria and Silent Night performed each year.
While awaiting the opening of the show, which won’t take place until Christmas Day, visitors enjoy the magic of Advent, with the giant fir tree set up in the underground grotto and the large Christmas market on the outskirts of the site.
Living Nativity scenes are particularly widespread and popular in Slovenia, whose culture is still imbued with a strong Catholic identity.