History of the Nativity Scene by Robert A. Selig
Transcribed from November 2008 Ostfriesen “NeuesBlatt” (newspaper)
Ostfriesen Heritage Society, Grundy Center, Iowa
Asked about the mental picture that comes to mind when they think about Christmas, most Christians the world over will place the Krippe, the nativity scene, at the very top of their list, together with the Christmas tree and the smells of Christmas emanating from the kitchen as they remember them from their childhood. And how could it be any other way when the Weihnachtskrippe, the visual representation of the birth of Christ, is the very reason for the celebration of Christmas?
What is a Weihnachtskrippe? The term Krippe, used to describe a nativity scene in German, comes from the old High German word Krippa. Originally, the term was used to describe a Flechtwerk, (wickerwork or basketwork) and was applied to a trough-like or basket-like contraption used to feed large animals such as cows or horses in a stable. The various English terms used to convey the meaning of German Krippe-crèche from the French meaning “Infant bed,” or manger as well as the German-language rooted words crib, a term used especially in the United Kingdom, and cradle all preserve both the religious as well as the real world content of the word.
Depicting the Holy Family in a stable with Christ child in a manger is based, of course, on the well-known description in the Gospel of Luke, beginning with chapter 2, verse 7, “And she brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.” Verses 12 and 16 describe the image to the shepherds as well, “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger…And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in a manger.”
Some historians see the origins of the three-dimensional depiction of the events in Bethlehem in the writings of Origines (circa 185-254 AD). Origines describes how pilgrims came to Bethlehem from all across the Roman Empire to visit the grotto where Christ’s crib was said to have stood. Since traveling to Bethlehem was not an option for most people, the early church is said to have encouraged the construction of nativity scenes in places were Christians met. Similarly shrouded in tradition is the creation of the first nativity scene by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223. According to Thomas of Celano, Francis’ nativity scene consisted of but a straw-filled manger set between a real ox and a donkey with the manger acting as the altar for the Christmas Mass. In 1289 in Rome, a chapel with an altar in one of the aisles of the church was found. A set of figures depicting the three wise men praying in front of the Christ child in his crib were added to the altar in 1291. (Historians see this as the oldest and still existing nativity scene).
Little is known about the manger set-up until 1500s. The early sixteenth century was a time of religious struggle, of Protestant reformation and Catholic renewal. The answer to the questions as to why nobles at court, clergy in their churches, and burghers in their houses began to set up nativity scenes during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may well lie within the context of the heightened spirituality and intense religious strife of the times.
From the churches and courts the Krippe soon spread into the homes of the burghers and the huts of the peasants—Lutheran, Catholic, Calvinist, and Moravian alike—where, located at the foot of the Christmas tree, it became the center of the observance of Christmas during the eighteenth century in Europe as well as in the New World.
In 1747, settlers in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, are said to have set up the first Christmas tree in North America; and a few years later, we also hear of nativity scenes in the homes of German settlers in Pennsylvania.
In the early nineteenth century, three important developments converged out of which grew the set-up for nativity scenes as we know them today. The sad fact that many of the most famous and elaborate Krippen had also fallen victim to the frenzy of destruction that had swept churches and monasteries and that had taken with it the centuries-old libraries, mass implements, and ornate garments. Nativity scene builders had to start anew. Then a development stemmed from hostility of the educated elite toward nativity scenes and even their outright prohibition by state authorities. Such a climate drove nativity scenes into a kind of underground existence. That, in turn, had strengthened the original roots of the display in popular culture and religiosity, which had survived by simply enduring the official anti-religious policies of early nineteenth century. Now these folkloristic roots burst to the forefront and rather than gold and silver laden baroque nativity scenes set in an imaginary landscape filled with figures wearing fantasy clothes, we see a preponderance of nativity scenes set in the area where people live, wearing the clothes of the area set in stables the artists themselves used. In the Krippe, as it developed in the early nineteenth century in the Alps and then spread across German-speaking Europe, bark, roots, dried moss, papier-mâché, stones, and other cheap natural materials replaced the opulence of the eighteenth-century Krippe built for public display in the churches and castles of the nobility.
The symbolism of the arrangement of figures was well known to the artists and their customers. In the Alpine region and beyond, the ox represented Judaism while the donkey stood for paganism. Both have been barred from the manager as their place has been taken by the Christ child. The magi, turned into kings in Christian mythology and sometimes added only on 6 January, offer the child gifts full of symbolism: gold stood for power, incense for honor, and myrrh, known in antiquity for its healing power, point to Christ as the great healer. Part of the scene yet standing on the square outside the city gates are the shepherds. Shepherds stood at the very bottom of the social scale, were outsiders, and just like city gages gates remained closed to them in real life, they were barred from approaching too closely to Christ—a political lesson not lost on the viewing of the scene, especially since the angels of the Lord had first appeared to the shepherds.
Traditionally, the nativity scene is not taken down until 2 February, Candlemas, but in today’s hectic world, hardly anyone even waits until 6 January anymore. However, it is not that important how long we keep our Christmas trees and nativity scene after Christmas Day. It is not important at all what kind of nativity display or Kastenkrippe we have. It does not matter how many oxen, shepherds, or wise men crowd our display.
What matters is that in the midst of our frantic lives we find a space in our hearts and home for the reason of Christmas, which is the celebration of the birth of Christ our Savior. GL (permission granted) Special thanks given to Lillian Marks, editor of the Ostfriesen NeuesBlatt.
St. Mauritius Evangelical Lutheran Church in Reepsholt, Germany
Built in the 1200’s and the marriage location of my gg and great grandparents
(1827 and 1860)
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:1, 14
Again, special thanks to Jürgen Adams (Wiesmoor, Germany) and Helmut Gewecke (Reepsholt, Germany) for graciously contributing their photographs to this publication. In addition, Corinth friends have allowed me to photograph their nativity scenes for several months. Without their generosity this publication would not have been possible.
Thank you.December 22: Die Weihnachtskrippe (Christmas Nativity Scene) Algona, Iowa (a beautiful story of love and forgiveness) December 30: From one generation to another (100th publication)