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Friday Slide Show: A Nativity Scene Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

14 December 2018

Having published an image of a menorah this week, we thought we'd give the other tribe a turn. We had to dig deep into the archives to find this set of images but we learned something.

We grew up with nativity scenes. If they weren't under the Christmas tree with the American Flyer chugging by anachronistically, they weren't far away. Our favorite, though, was the life-size one at St. Dominic's because it had real animals. There was another real one in Golden Gate Park for many years, too.

Those live nativity scenes were not just closer to the original event but also to the first recreated nativity scene, which resorted to humans and live animals to play the various roles. In 1223 at Greccio in central Italy, Francis of Assisi created the first manger scene in an attempt to focus everyone's thoughts on the religious aspect of the day instead of Amazon deliveries and package thieves.

Saint Bonaventure described that first manger scene in his biography of Francis:

Now three years before his death it befell that he was minded, at the town of Greccio, to celebrate the memory of the Birth of the Child Jesus, with all the added solemnity that he might, for the kindling of devotion. That this might not seem an innovation, he sought and obtained license from the Supreme Pontiff, and then made ready a manger, and made hay, together with an ox and an ass, be brought unto the spot.

The Brethren were called together, the folk assembled, the wood echoed with their voices, and that august night was made radiant and solemn with many bright lights, and with tuneful and sonorous praises. The man of God, filled with tender love, stood before the manger, bathed in tears, and overflowing with joy.

Solemn Masses were celebrated over the manger, Francis, the Levite of Christ, chanting the Holy Gospel. Then he preached unto the folk standing round of the Birth of the King in poverty, calling Him, when he wished to name Him, the Child of Bethlehem, by reason of his tender love for Him.

A certain knight, valorous and true, Messer John of Greccio, who for the love of Christ had left the secular army, and was bound by closest friendship unto the man of God, declared that he beheld a little Child right fair to see sleeping in that manger. Who seemed to be awakened from sleep when the blessed Father Francis embraced Him in both arms. This vision of the devout knight is rendered worthy of belief, not alone through the holiness of him that beheld it, but is also confirmed by the truth that it set forth, and withal proven by the miracles that followed it.

For the ensemble of Francis, if meditated upon by the world, must needs stir up sluggish hearts unto the faith of Christ, and the hay that was kept back from the manger by the folk proved a marvellous remedy for sick beasts, and a prophylactic against divers other plagues, God magnifying by all means His servant, and making manifest by clear and miraculous portents the efficacy of his holy prayers.

Sometime between now and then, nativity scenes became less live performances and more staged sets.

The images in our slide show are of a nativity scene donated in 1986 by Mrs. McCormick of Santa Barbara to Mission Carmel. At the Mission, there is a little hand-written explanation of the scene (a photo of which you'll see in the slides show) which reads:

The nativity scene originated in Italy with St. Francis of Assisi. The tradition came to the California Missions with the Franciscans who assembled scenes as large and lavish with what things were imported and at hand. History records the large Italian Scene which "fills the whole area of the Sanctuary at Mission San Joe," with huge painted backdrops and imitation rockwork done by Andre Gonzales Rubio. Trade with the European sailing vessels are evidenced by paper-mache figures from France (used at Mission San Luis Obispo), clothed doll-like figures from Mallorca (at Carmel) and Italian wood of terra cotta figures (probably much like those here displayed) at Mission San Jose. The creche or Nativity Scene has always been the central focus of the European Christmas celebration -- both in the churches and in the home. Much as the Christmas tree is here.

Our youngest brother, who himself was born in December, has made a reputation for himself giving nativity scenes away. One year he even made a set of figurines, giving one to each of us in the family on the theory we would all have to meet in the same place each year to assemble the scene.

Well, it's the thought that counts.

He later made us the present of a portable nativity scene (seen here in its case, top removed) which we endeavor to set up each year in a different place around the house. Generally out of sight.

Portable. Complete cast, including Star of Bethlehem.

Setting up a nativity scene is a difficult tradition to leave behind. It calls on "all a man's capacities and intelligence," as Anna Maria Ortese put it in her piece Family Interior in Neapolitan Chronicles.

She artfully describes more than the intricacies involved in the project:

But the most interesting thing was the nativity scene, an enormous construction of cardboard and cork. It was Eduardo's doing. Every year, with the eagerness of a child, he started work on it two months before the holiday, shrieking like a madman if someone disturbed him. This year, since things were going well for the family, it was bigger than ever before, taking up the whole corner between the balcony and the kitchen door, where usually there was a small console table with a scene of Venice above it. Because of this construction, the room seemed smaller and more cheerful. It really was a work carried out with painstaking and patient love, in which all a man's capacities and intelligence were on display. The background had been made from an immense sheet of royal-blue cardboard sprinkled with perhaps two hundred stars cut out of silver and gold paper, and attached with glue. The grotto, dug into the arc of an undulating, peaceful hill that somewhat resembled Naples, wasn't large, and you had to stoop down to make out the figures inside, which were barely thumb-size. St. Joseph and the Virgin, both molded with the rock they were sitting on, had bright pink faces and hands, and, bending over the manger, seemed to be grimacing horribly, like people who are dying. The child, much bigger than his parents (in part for symbolic reasons), was instead smooth and pale, and slept with one leg over the other, like a man His face showed nothing, other than an apathetic smile, as if he were saying, "This is the world," or something like that. A tiny electric light illuminated the stable, where everything, from the child's flesh to the animals' noses, expressed passivity and a harsh languor.

Outside the grotto it was much more beautiful. The shepherds were a real army, motionlessly inundating that small mountain. They appeared to be going up and down the slopes, looking out of one of the white houses built into the rock (in the style of southern town), or leaning over a well, or sitting at the table of a country inn; or, finally, to be sleeping, waking, walking, courting a girl, or selling (and you could see their mouths opened in a cry) a basket of fish, or resoling shoes (sitting at a cobbler's bench), or performing a tarantella, while another, crouching in a corner with a mischievous air, touched a guitar. Many, standing near a donkey or some sheep, had their arms raised to indicate a distant point in that blue paper, or shielded their eyes with one hand to protect them from the bright light of an angel, who had dropped from a tree, with a strip of paper on which was written "Hosanna!" or "Peace on earth to men of good will!" Finally, there were two elegant cafes, on the model of those in Piazza dei Martiri, with small nickel-plated tables on the sidewalk, and red-wheeled carriage that drove up and down, carrying ladies holding fans and white parasols.

We can't pretend our portable set can aspire to such art (you can see why, we think). But we'd better get on with it. There must be some place we can put it up it hasn't been before.

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