Ethnic traditions

Christmas Nativity Scenes of the World

How did the nativity scene come about? What are its names in different countries? What does it look like and what are its features? Which nativity scenes are considered the largest in the world and why? All the answers are below.

Nativity scene or Vertep // dw.com

How the nativity scene arose

The emergence of the nativity tradition dates back to the XIII century. According to one legend, Francis of Assisi, one of the most revered saints in Italy, decided not only to tell, but also to show ordinary believers the story of the birth of Christ. He found a small grotto in his town and recreated a biblical story in it. He set up a manger covered with straw, live animals – a donkey and an ox; put the Savior’s baby doll in the cradle. He held a Christmas service amidst such setting and the people loved it and every year the parishioners arrived in greater numbers.

Names of nativity scenes in the world

In England, the nativity scene is called the Nativity scene, in Germany – the Christmas crib (Weihnachtskrippen or Christschau).

In the Ukrainian culturevertep (Cyrillic: Вертеп, Батлейка) is a portable puppet theatre and drama, which presents the nativity scene, other mystery plays, and later secular plots as well. The original meaning of the word is “secret place”, “cave”, “den”, referring to the cave where Christ was born, i.e., the Bethlehem Cave “Вифлеемский вертеп” in the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the 17th century, the vertep arrived in the Russian Empire after the Ukrainian Cossack Hetmanate, where it was known as szopka, became a Protectorat of the empire in 1654 (it was formally part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth).

In Belarusian culture it was also referred to as Batleika (батлейка), from “Bethlehem“.

In Poland and Western Ukraine prevails name «Szopka» (from the German Schoppen – a barn or shed). In Italy and Spain – Belén (transformation of the name of the city of Bethlehem) or prezepe, prezepio (i.e – bed). The Ukrainian name “Vertep” from Old Slavonic means a cave or a secret place.

Szopkа // mccw.org

What does the nativity scene look like?

In Catholic churches, cribs with fixed or movable sculptures of characters are set up every year, reproducing episodes from the Bible. The size of the nativity scene can be different: small – in the form of a small table stage or contain large sculptures in full growth. Mandatory images of the Virgin Mary, Joseph, little Jesus, the Ox, the Donkey, the Angel, the three Magi who brought the baby gifts: gold (Melchior), incense (Caspar), myrrh (Balthazar). There should also be a guiding star that led people to the cave. Sometimes nativity scenes are complemented by scenes from everyday life, adding figures in folk costumes: market vendors, city dwellers, and so on.

The arsenal of figures of modern nativity scenes is constantly replenished. The masters introduce into the plot of famous people of different professions (you can even meet politicians – Berlusconi or Obama) and unusual animals. For example, in the personal Christmas nativity scene of Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 there were even figures of two cats.

Neapolitan presepio at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh
 Nativity scene in Barcelona (2009) – Nativity scene with full-length figures

Living nativity scenes

Belen – Escorial, Spain

Pantomimes similar to the scene staged by St. Francis at Greccio became an annual event throughout Christendom. Abuses and exaggerations in the presentation of mystery plays during the Middle Ages, however, forced the church to prohibit performances during the 15th century. The plays survived outside church walls, and 300 years after the prohibition, German immigrants brought simple forms of the nativity play to America. Some features of the dramas became part of both Catholic and Protestant Christmas services with children often taking the parts of characters in the nativity story. Nativity plays and pageants, culminating in living nativity scenes, eventually entered public schools. Such exhibitions have been challenged on the grounds of separation of church and state.

Live Belen in Cabezon, Spain. INAUGURACIîN DEL PARQUE TEMATICO DEL BELEN VIVIENTE EN CABEZNON FOTO MIGUEL ANGEL SANTOS

In some countries, the nativity scene took to the streets with human performers costumed as Joseph and Mary traveling from house to house seeking shelter and being told by the houses’ occupants to move on. The couple’s journey culminated in an outdoor tableau vivant at a designated place with the shepherds and the Magi then traveling the streets in parade fashion looking for the Christ child.

Belen in Buitrago, Spain

Some towns in Spain have taken special pride in their nativity scenes, and have literally brought them to life. In these cases, the scene is life-sized and local inhabitants of the town dress up as the biblical characters. One of the most famous can be found in the town of Buitrago (Madrid), which has enacted a famous living nativity scene featuring around 200 actors who play the roles of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the manger, the shepherds, and the Three Wise Men, amongst others. Another is the one in Cabezón de Pisuerga (Castile-León), which takes you back in time by including a depiction of traditional crafts: carpenters, blacksmiths, washer women and millers. The nativity scene in Bàscara (Girona) builds caves, vegetation, and drinking fountains in a tradition held since 1973. Over 300 actors transform the town into a recreation of the Palestine that existed over 2000 years ago. Another recommendable event is the religious mystery play of the Three Kings in Sangüesa (Navarre). It takes place each year on January 6, and is more than just a living nativity scene – it is an open-air theater portraying the arrival of the Three Kings to worship the baby Jesus.

Belen in Bascara, Spain

Interestingly, even kings were fond of nativity scenes. Thus, King Charles III of Bourbon (Naples, XVIII century) liked to make dolls for nativity scenes, and noble ladies had to decorate them. During his reign, the creation of nativity scenes became a real profession. There were even tailors who sewed clothes for the characters, decorating it with stones and embroidery. The material for the nativity sculpture is various: clay, wood, stones, dough, wax, fabric, plastic, marzipan, chocolate, papier-mâché, in general, everything that the creator’s imagination wants.

Christmas nativity scene made of paper // moemisto.ua

Neapolitan nativity scenes

Neapolitan nativity scenes are considered the most perfect, and the city of Naples is the universally recognized capital of nativity scenes. From the beginning of December everywhere: from the famous street of artisans of San Gregorio Armeno to the usual shop on the outskirts of the city, the masters try to surpass each other and even themselves, painting, carving, sculpting and displaying their best nativity scenes.

Presepi «sotto-vetro» (Cribs under glass) // travel.rambler.ru

Here you can buy figures of all the characters of the classic Christmas mystery, which are real works of art of the families of craftsmen who pass their craft from generation to generation. Modern world masters make the figures movable. The windows of miniature houses are always lit, and real water flows in the streams.

Via San Gregorio Armeno // forum.tourtrans.ru

Known mechanical nativity scenes

Krýza Nativity Scene ( Krýza’s crèche) – the largest folk mechanical nativity scene in the world, which is even written in the Guinness Book of World Records, is the most visited exposition of the museum. The magnificent nativity scene, which was made by local Jindřichův Hradec master hosier Tomáš Krýza, took over 60 years to construct. There are 1398 human and animal figures, of which 133 are movable. The figurines are made of wood and laminate materials. The original mechanism, which in the beginning was driven by a hand-crank, brings the entire piece into motion using a single electric motor.

Stocking-weaver Tomáš Krýza (1838 – 1918) was a burgher from Jindřichův Hradec (a town in today’s South Bohemian Region of the Czech Republic). He had worked on the creche for over sixty years. The scene covers around 60 m² (length 17 m, size and height 2 m). It contains 1389 figures of humans and animals, of which 133 are moveable. The material used was woodfloursawdustgypsum and fish glue. The mechanical parts were originally powered manually, now single electrical motor is used.
The oldest part of the nativity scene depicts birth of Christ. Themes from Bible and scenes of everyday life in 19th century Bohemia inspired the rest. The creche is now exhibited in the Museum of Jindřichův Hradec . Photo –veryimportantlot.com

Also very popular is Třebechovice pod Orebem / Probošt’s mechanical Christmas crib

Related articles: Vertep, The Marvellous Christmas Tradition of Poland’s Szopki, Eastern Orthodox Christmas traditions. Koliada -January 6 -7, Krýza’s crèche – The nativity scene created by Tomáš Krýza, Nativity scene, Probošt’s mechanical Christmas crib and others.

Spanish and Swiss nativity scenes

Belen in Torrevieja, Spain

Spanish puppeteers take the creation of nativity scenes very seriously, as art. The figures are made and painted by hand. They even grow moss, special trees and bushes to make the composition environmentally friendly. In addition to the traditional characters, there are also thatched houses with thatched roofs, miniature utensils, fountains made of tiny stones and toy furniture.

The most famous nativity scene “Belen del Principe” (XVIII century). The Royal Palace in Madrid // otravisconcierge.blogspot.com

In Switzerland, one of the largest nativity scenes in Lausanne Cathedral is being built almost a year before Christmas. As soon as the holiday is over, they immediately start preparing a new exposition, changing all the figures. The nativity scene is built in a semicircle under one of the arches of the temple so that everyone passing by could see all the genre scenes. Spectators are amazed by the skill of people who use different materials (paper, wood, polymer clay, iron, glass, moss) to make all the figures and objects as similar as possible to the real thing.

Vertep // photokarachko.blogspot.com
Vertep // photokarachko.blogspot.com

French santons

The French city of Arles (Provence) is famous for the art of making santons – clay “little saints”. These are representatives of various professions and social strata of Provence. They are used for Christmas nativity scene or interior decoration. The tradition came to Provence  from Italy. Initially, the figurines were only from religious subjects, but in the middle of the XVIII century one of the famous artisans sculpted his neighbors: fishermen with fishing rods, village simpletons, florists, shepherds, saleswomen, laundresses. These figurines suddenly became very popular, and in the cities of Provence began to hold regular fairs of santons.

santon (Provençal: little saint) is a small hand-painted, terracotta nativity scene figurine produced in the Provence region of southeastern France. In a traditional Provençal crèche, the santons represent various characters from Provençal village life such as the scissors grinder, the fishwife, and the chestnut seller. The figurines were first created during the French Revolution when churches were forcibly closed and large nativity scenes prohibited.  Today, their production is a family affair passed from parents to children. During the Christmas season, santon makers gather in Marseille and other locales in southeastern France to display and sell their wares.

Provencal santons // ruarles.ru

Dolls are made of two types: painted clay figurines three to nine centimeters high or sculptures dressed in bright clothes, up to 30 centimeters high. They are made by hand from local red clay. They burn and paint or sew authentic clothes for them. Each figurine is sculpted with a flat stand so that it can be conveniently placed in the interior. Each doll has its own character, their faces express emotions. Due to the popularity of these statuettes not only in France but also abroad, Arles has the International Salon of Santoni masters.

santon produce seller

Krakow Christmas Nativity Scenes

Krakow Christmas Nativity Scenes are included in the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage of mankind. The Krakow Christmas Shop is a two-storey building reminiscent of one of the city’s landmarks, the Wawel Palace or St. Mary’s Church.

Kraków szopka / sb.by

The Kraków szopka often feature historical and contemporary figures and events related to the life of Krakow, Poland and the world. The structure itself can be quite tiny, like a matchbox, and can reach several meters in height. The process of creating such a product is very laborious and requires patience, because it takes almost a year!

Kraków szopka / culture.pl
Anna Kaczmarz/ Adam Wojnar
Następne

The largest nativity scenes in the world

The largest indoor Christmas scene is in Belgium. It occupies the entire first floor of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Brussels). Several dozen artists have been working on this creation for a month, believing that this is where you can feel the soul of the holiday. All characters (people and animals) are made in the real sizes; the walls of Jerusalem are seven meters high. Reproduced by Bethlehem with the locals in the market and, of course, the plot of the birth of the Savior.

Patrick Levu, the nativity scene’s chief designer, says that “they tried to follow the traditional notions of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus. But they fantasized a bit – they decided that the three kings would enter Bethlehem on elephants. ” Artists rejoice when the nativity scene is visited by different people, regardless of religious denominations, and even the whole family.

The largest nativity scene in Portugal is made in the old half of the town of Penela in the district of Coimbra. The nativity scene itself is a large model of a street with ponds, caves, fortresses, roads and houses, etc. The masters work on it for five weeks. In addition to scenes from the Bible, there are many figures of ordinary people, domestic and wild birds and animals in this three-dimensional nativity scene. To admire such a Christmas miracle, visitors pay money, which local authorities then spend on charity.

Vertep // vashsad.ua

Every year tourists are impressed by the nativity scene in Manarola (Liguria region, Italy). This is the local hill of Tre Croci, where a large number of lights illuminate the statuettes of biblical characters, as well as figures of peasants, fishermen, all kinds of animals. There are more than 300 of them.

Nativity scene in Manarola // bestofcinqueterre.com

In the city of Bucaramanga (Colombia), the area of the Christmas exhibition is 18 thousand square meters. This panoramic exhibition was entered in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest. Visitors, including children, can walk between the characters. Figures of people, sheep, donkeys, mules are created in the real sizes. Guests are presented with a ‘live’ reconstruction of biblical stories with the help of a large number of actors.

Vertep // eva.ru

In addition to the nativity scene, there are other interesting Christmas traditions. Some have remained since pre-Christian times and have even been banned. Source 1, Source 2, Source 3

Related articles: Vertep, The Marvellous Christmas Tradition of Poland’s Szopki, Eastern Orthodox Christmas traditions. Koliada -January 6 -7, Krýza’s crèche – The nativity scene created by Tomáš Krýza, Nativity scene, Probošt’s mechanical Christmas crib and others.

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