“And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger …”
Christmas celebrations today are usually marked by the presence of the tree in our homes and the crib in our churches.
The Christmas crib has an interesting, if somewhat obscure history. We know, for instance, that a model of the grotto of Bethlehem was included in the fifth century Roman church of Sancta Maria ad Praesepe and that in time there was a similar crypt in Saint Peter’s and in the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. There were frequent representations of the Christmas scene in art and mosaic. There is even a definite tradition of the dramatic performance of the scenes. A play would be celebrated in church either before or after Matins with deacons grouped on each side of the altar to represent mid-wives and shepherds. In the beginning they wore their ecclesiastical vestments, but in time they began to wear clothes better suited to the parts. This introduced a note of comedy which was quickly given more stress.
So much liberty was increasingly taken in these medieval mystery plays that Pope Innocent III in 1207 denounced the license of the drama, censuring those who took part. That explains why Saint Francis of Assisi had to ask Pope Honorius III for permission to set up a crib in Greccio for the Christmas of 1223. Francis took the familiar idea of showing the human aspects of the Christmas story, popularized it once more, and gave it the form we know today. He had a simple crib constructed, and grouped around it the figures of the Blessed Virgin and Saint Joseph as well as the shepherds and animals. His purpose was to move the people to greater devotion to the Christ Child. To this day, when every church has its own crib for the Christmas season, Catholics find the Christmas crib an aid to devotion.
Information from The Life of Christ “Our Lord’s Life with Lesson in His Own Words for Our Life Today” The Catholic Press, Inc. 1959 © 1954 edited by Reverend John P. O’Connell, MASTD and Jex Martin, MA following mainly A Chronological Harmony of the Gospels by Stephen J Hartdegen OFM. NIHIL OBSTAT John A McMahon; IMPRIMATUR Samuel Cardinal Stritch, Archbishop of Chicago August 1, 1953. Print.
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