OUR PARISH HERITAGE: Behind the scenes of the Nativity Scene

Last Updated on January 18, 2014 by Editor


Certainly, during the holidays, you probably stopped to admire the beautiful Nativity representation (presepio or presepe in Italian) of Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament.

If you have small children you might have used it as an instructional tool in showing what Christmas is really about. If that is so, then you are doing exactly what St. Francis of Assisi intended when he created the first presepio with live animals and people in the town of Greccio in 1223.

Tomasso da Celano, an early biographer of Francis, described it as “honoring the simplicity, exalting poverty, praising humility” changing Greccio into a “new Bethlehem.”

In his last book, Pope John Paul II insisted that the animals were not mentioned in the actual gospel. Nonetheless, they are forever members of the cast of characters we now associate with the scene. In fact, the oldest sculpted in-the-round presepio can be found in the church of Santo Stefano (end of the 13th century) in Bologna. Originally created without color, the figures were later painted vividly in 1370 by Simone dei Crocefissi. Those colors and the individual characters and elements have unique meaning.

Mary’s blue mantle represents the sky and, therefore, the heavenly origin of her child. Joseph is in the browns of the Earth, representing humility. In Isaiah 1:3 the verses say: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.” Perhaps from this foreshadowing of Christ’s birth and the Jews not accepting him was born the tradition of the animals. Other sources say the ox represents the Jews and the donkey represents the pagans, all of whom will one day come to recognize the Christ.

The stable, or grotto, in which the characters are placed are not explicitly mentioned by any of the four evangelists. There were, however, in eastern cultures particular attachments to caves as the birthplaces of pagan gods. In fact, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is built over a small grotto that is the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

The three kings are in the gospel according to Matthew. If you look at the characters closely you will see that they represent the three known races at the time. There is a Persian carrying gold (wealth), representing the Indo-Europeans. There is an Arab bearing incense (which still is burned today as a symbol of rising to heaven), representing the East. And the black wise man bearing myrrh (used in rituals of death), represents the African race. All come to bear witness and pay homage to the Son of God.

It was Pope Leo I (pope from 440 to 461) who officially declared that there were three wise men. Previously, there had been versions of the story which included from two to 12. Their journey from the East traces the path of the sun, as Christ represented a new day for mankind.

The shepherds represent the great masses of the common folk who would one day follow Jesus. They are humble, work hard and care for their flocks as Jesus would grow to care for them. Often, there is a shepherd asleep on the hay who represents the esoteric search for the dream of salvation.

It was the Neapolitans in the 1700s who defined the Nativity scenes found in most of Italy and elsewhere today. Wealthy families competed with each other to have the very best presepio. The nobility dedicated entire rooms of their palaces to their creations, clothing the figures in sumptuous fabrics and having the very best craftsmen create minute details of everyday life in their miniature villages.

In the 1800s, common folk got into the tradition. Still today, if you go to via San Gregorio Armeno in downtown Naples, you will find a street lined with boutiques that do nothing but create and sell “i pastori,” literally, “the shepherds.” But they create oh so much more!

On the shelves among the traditional characters one can find miniatures of popular saints such Padre Pio, Mother Teresa, pop icons such as Totò, Princess Diana and Ghandi, prominent politicians, even including Barack and Michelle Obama. There are houses and backgrounds, vegetation and all kinds of vehicles.

Here are some of the more established characters and decorations of the Neapolitan style nativity and what they represent:

The washerwoman: An old story tells of Salomè, a washerwoman who would not believe a virgin could bear a child until she examined the girl’s “nature” herself. In daring to touch Mary, her hand was incinerated only to be restored after touching the Divine Child.

The gypsy: The gypsy is a more modern take on the ancient sibyls, who predicted the future. Legend has it that the Cumean sibyl, who lived not far from the present city of Naples, predicted the birth of Christ. She supposed that she would be the mother of the child, but when the angels announced the birth of Jesus she realized her hubris and was turned into an owl. A gypsy holding a child is a reminder of Mary when she had to wander into Egypt to save her child.

The hunter: A hunter with a rifle seems like he has no place in this scene, but to the Neapolitans he represents the arrogance of the class of people who interpret signs for their own selfish ends.

The fisherman: Remember Jesus said to the apostles that they would become “fishers of men.”

The well: An ill omen, water drawn from a well on Christmas was filled with diabolical spirits; perhaps a legend created to keep curious children away from them and the danger of falling in. They also are an ancient pagan reference to beliefs they were a connection to the underworld.

The fountain: In popular lore the fountain was a place for apparitions and romantic encounters. It also might be a reference to the belief that Mary received the Annunciation while drawing water from a fountain.

The bridge: Is a symbol of connecting the living to the dead much like Christ is the symbol of the bridge to everlasting life.

The shops: Represent the teaming life of the town, though not so much of Bethlehem as the bustling town of Naples as the people knew it.

The mill: Multiple meanings here. The continuous movement of its sails represents the march of time. The grinding of the wheat is mentioned in the Bible in separating the wheat (the saved) from the chaff (the damned). The “bread of life” begins to take its shape here.

The inn: A clear reference to the inns with no room in the Christmas story. In Neapolitan lore, St. Nicholas revived three children murdered in an inn.