The crib, or crèche, is a representation of the birth of Jesus that is prepared all around the world during the Christmas holidays, using different kinds of materials and in different ways, according to everybody’s fantasy and ability.
The origin of this tradition dates back to the Roman period, during which the crib was called, in Latin, praesepe, which means “manger”, and is the combination of two words, prae (=in front of), and saepes (=fence), i.e. a place that has a fence in front. It can have something in ccommon with a custom of that period, the worship of Larii, that were the souls of the dead relatives who watched over people’s families. They were represented by some statuettes made with earthenware or wax, called sigilla (sing.: sigillum, from the word signum=sign, image) that were put by children in a niche with a candle in front of it. In the Winter Solstice period, they celebrated a feast called “Sigillaria”, during which these statuettes were given as presents to the relatives and, on the feast eve, the families used to invoke the ancestors and leave a bowl with food and wine as an offer, that were replaced by toys for the children by their grandparents – they thought.
So it is possible that when Christianity spread in the Roman empire, this tradition acquired some Christian meanings that we still attribute to the crib today, although they keep up similar rites and dates.
History tells us that the first crib was made in Greccio, in 1223, by Saint Francis from Assisi, who obtained a permission from the Pope to recreate the Nativity. It was a “live” crib: all the farmers, the shepherds and the artisans gathered to bring presents for the Holy Baby and for poor people. Between 1290 and 1292, an Italian sculptor, Arnolfo di Cambio, made the first inanimate crib carving in wood the figurines of his work.
Today in Italy people make the crib using wood, earthenware or paper-mâché, and it is very different according to the traditions and the typical products of the various regions. French people make particular clay characters called “santons”, which are hand-painted, while in Germany cribs are sold, together with Christmas cakes and decorations, in flea markets called “Christkindlemarket”. Overseas, the most famous and oldest American crib is the Moravian Church Putz, that represents the entire story of Jesus’s birth from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
In Eastern Europe there are different traditions about the crib. In Hungary they prepare it in a movable box which has the shape of a church and the figures are made with wood, paper or wadding; Russian crèches are on two levels: above there is the Nativity and below there are funny representations of daily life. Similar is the Polish crib, the “Szopka”, which is on three levels: there are the angels, the Nativity and, finally, some farmers with the Magi.
In Latin America this custom spread after the conversion of some local tribes by some French, Spanish and Portuguese priests and today the peoples who live in this area make the crèche with the colours of the sun and the sky, because they celebrate Christmas in summer.
Instead, in Africa the first cribs were made with plaster and were brought by the missionaries, so it was very difficult for African populations to believe that God had a white skin but, over time, they started to introduce some African characteristics in their representation of Jesus’s birth.
In the crèche there are a lot of symbols. Mary has a blue mantle to symbolizes the sky, so pureness, while Joseph has a dark cloak that indicates his humble condition. The ox and the ass represented respectively the Jews and the Gentiles, and the Magi are the Three Persian Wise Man, called Melkon, Gaspar and Balthasar, that impersonate the three continents known in these period, Europe (Iapetus), Africa (Hamites) and Asia (Semites), as well as the three ages of man, youth, maturity and old age.