Two of the gospels describe the birth of Christ: Matthew places the birth at Joseph’s home in Bethlehem (1:24 and 2:1) and tells of the visit of the three kings, the flight into Egypt and the massacre of the innocents; Luke leaves the place of birth undefined, mentions the baby being placed in a manger, and tells the story of the shepherds’ visit (2: 1-21). Obscure traditions, now consigned to the Apocryphal gospels, embroidered on and attempted to harmonize these details. Symbolic interpretations of the figures present at the Nativity – the three kings, the shepherds – gradually emerged. From the 2nd century, nativity scenes appeared on the walls of the catacombs of Rome; from the 4th century onwards, the Nativity became a favoured subject for religious art. In 337 CE, Pope Julius 1 declared 25 December the date of Jesus’ birth.

The Origins of Animated Cribs

Pope Liberius (352-366) was responsible for the construction of a simple roof structure resting on tree-trunks, representing a stable, in front of the altar where the Christmas Eve mass was to be celebrated, in the church of Sancta Maria ad Praesepe in Rome (now known as the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, or Basilica of Saint Mary Major). The Latin word praesepes or praesepium (from prae, “in front of” and saepire, “to enclose”) indicates a closed place and in particular, a manger. Tradition suggests that the first crib (French: crèche) was created in 1025 in Naples, when wooden statues representing the figures of the Nativity were placed in the church of Sancta Maria ad Praesepe (near to the San Domenico Maggiore square). In 1223, on his return from the Holy Land, Francis of Assisi, aiming to strengthen the religious spirit of the faithful, obtained permission from Pope Honorius III to celebrate a nativity mass in a setting which would recall the landscapes in which Christ lived (the Church having forbidden the representation of sacred dramas during masses). He arranged a nativity scene in the town of Greccio, not in a church but in a natural grotto, of monks and villagers participating without any class distinction. The Holy Family was absent from this naturalistic, pious representation, but a real ox and donkey stood at the side, symbols of Jewish and pagan peoples respectively, according to Origen’s interpretation of a passage from Isaiah (“The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib”, Isaiah 1:3). Some historians see the tradition of cribs with living people or animated figures as a continuation of this first scene. There are also a great many accounts of cribs with figures sculpted in bas-relief or in three dimensions, the most famous being that carved in wood by Arnolfo di Cambio in around 1290, with life-size statues of the three kings, Joseph, the ox and the donkey, which can still be visited in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

Up until the mid-15th century, artists sculpted statues which were placed before a painted background, the whole scene being shown in churches at the Christmas season. This type of crib is still found today in a tradition which enjoys a great richness of variants: in the 18th century, the art of the Neapolitan crib reached its highest point, with monumental ensembles showing scenes of daily life, with naturalistic detail and a profusion of precious materials. To strengthen the lifelikeness of the illusion, the figures in the crib were sometimes mechanized. The first documentation of this is found in 1300, when a gilded pesebre (“nativity scene”) of great value was placed on the main altar of Barcelona Cathedral for the days of Christmas (see Spain). We know of other mechanical cribs. In Italy, there are the elaborated Neapolitan works of the 18th century, which include moving figurines (pastori) with articulated arms and legs that are still famous. In Germany, Hans Schlottheim built a mechanical crib for Christian 1, Elector of Saxony, in 1588 (as well as other famous automata, such as the so-called “Nef de Charles Quint” in France, or Mechanical Galleon, of which the British Museum holds one of three surviving examples). In the 18th century, in Austria, some cribs boasted highly sophisticated mechanisms, such as those of the Pilgrimage Church of Christkindl (founded in 1708), those in the gardens of the Hellbrunn Palace (with figures moved by fountains), and the Steyr mechanical crib (around 1800), in which 400 mechanical figures were animated in a sumptuous setting (see Austria). The mixture of a religious message with frequently satirical representations of daily life was a characteristic trait of these performances, eventually provoking mistrust on the part of the church hierarchy.

From the Reredos to Treading the Boards

The 16th-century Council of Trent put an end to these profane excesses, forbidding performances during holy offices. Thereafter, nativity scenes were presented in the street using puppets throughout all Catholic countries, becoming an important element in the traditional repertoire of the puppet theatre. Some historians connect the origin of the animated crib to the development of the ecclesiastical retable (in Spanish, the word retablo refers both to the puppet theatre and to the retable or reredos behind an altar). The relation between crib and the church retable is especially visible in the Polish szopka and the Ukrainian vertep, with their various regional variations, the batleyka in Belarus, and the džafkuline tradition of Lendak in Slovakia, the origins of which can be traced back to the Middle Ages, and which was performed until the 1950s. The unusual sound of the name of this tradition seems to have come from the language spoken by gypsies; the most characteristic figure in the džafkuline tradition is the figure of the gypsy. In Slovakia today, “Bethlehem plays” are nativities in which wooden puppets are moved inside a little house that resembles a church. Like the szopka or vertep, the Romanian harzob is a small glass-fronted chest in which glove puppets in the form of animals make humorous comment on contemporary social problems. These shows were enormously popular throughout the 19th century, as evidenced by the hundreds of requests addressed to the police by puppeteers asking for permission to perform.

In France, apart from the crib at Lyon, the most important crib was at Besançon, where the Nativity was presented with puppets and sometimes with shadows. It involved, apart from the sermon, a procession of more than 300 figures fixed to a board which could be made to slide from one side to the other or to turn around individually. Barbizier, the protagonist, is a symbol of independent spirit in the face of indoctrination and the abuse of power, and never stops attacking these evils, in patois. Banned during the French Revolution, the Besançon crib was later revived, not so much as an instrument of social critique as a show for children, and can still be seen today. The ethnographic features of the Provençal crib were established at the beginning of the 19th century, with various types representing everyday life and local trades. These animated cribs emerged from the nativity scenes of so-called “talking” puppets, which disappeared in 1793 following the closure of the churches after the French Revolution but reappeared after the Concordat of 1803. They employed figures on rods fastened to pedestals, and moved about on runners from below a platform. They were later refined with the help of a mechanism fixed into the puppet’s body. Performances of these public nativity scenes, which mixed comic and religious pastoral motifs, continued until the beginning of the 20th century in Marseille, Aix and Toulon.

On the Iberian Peninsula, in the town of Alcoy (Alcoi), Spain, the Belén de Tirisiti is still presented between Christmas and the Epiphany, having been first documented in 1870. The dramatic space is a single setting made up of three distinct scenes; the small figures move between them, manipulated from beneath. In Cádiz, La Tía Norica theatre has, since 1984, revived a crib tradition which goes back to the beginning of the 19th century. This nativity cycle is performed with string puppets and  rod puppets and is based on adaptations of the autos sacramentales (a form similar to medieval morality plays), such as El Nacimiento del Messias (The Birth of the Messiah). In Portugal the Bonecos de Santo Aleixo, which go back to the middle of the 19th century, have – also since 1984 – recovered another nativity tradition, deriving from the same Mediterranean tradition of rod puppets, the Bonecos de Santo Aleixo de Evora, and also begin their performance with the mystery of Nascimento do Menino (The Birth of the Infant Jesus). In Sicily, there is a deeply rooted cultural heritage, belonging more to popular than educated culture, linked to the Nativity. Popular stories such as the Nascita del Bambino or Natività, derived from Nascita del verbo incarnato (The Birth of the Word Made Flesh), sometimes replace the typical chivalric themes performed by the pupi armati for the period of the Christmas holidays.

In Belgium, Li Naissance was presented in “bètièmes” (a contraction of Bethlehem) in many towns. In Liège, at the end of the 19th century, it was already the custom to watch a performance of Li Nêssance while staying up as a family for the Christmas morning mass. Each director aimed to refresh the scenery and costumes (particularly those of the Three Kings, who seemed in competition to outdo each other in splendour) in order to honour the Christ Child “who came to earth to lie on straw”. Each puppeteer would elaborate as he wished on the story “according to the gospels”, introducing familiar theatrical characters alongside the biblical shepherds, especially Tchantchès and Nanèsse. After a long scene at the crib, followed by a representation of the Massacre of the Innocents, the puppeteer would lead the Holy Family into Egypt. Beginning in the evening, the scenes were linked together, and continued, each one a little shorter than the last, until the mass at dawn. This practice declined between the wars as the small theatres closed. Only Denis Bisscheroux kept it going until Christmas 1960. From 1974, the Théâtre Al Botroûle renewed the tradition by presenting a performance in two halves, written by Jacques Ancion: Li Nêssance over the Christmas period and Les Miracles de la fuite en Égypte after Epiphany. Nativities of this type were found in Brussels, Anvers, Gand (Ghent), Tournai and Mons (where shadow plays were associated with “bètième”) and also in northern France, in Lille and Roubaix. The Bethléem of the town of Verviers should also be mentioned, a small puppet theatre comparable to the Tirisiti crib tradition which is found in Alcoy, Spain and dates back to the beginning of the 19th century.

As performed by puppets, the crib tradition mixes the sacred and the profane, often presenting apocryphal episodes or those which simply seem most apt for improvisation. Nevertheless, some traditions go further than others in breaking open the dramatic structure and its codes, diminishing the “religious mystery” to the point of complete effacement. For example, the présèpi in Nice is without any equivalent, in that the holy characters are entirely absent. However, the performance does speak of the birth of Jesus through the dialogue, in the city’s “nissard” (Niçard, Nissart/Niçart) dialect, spoken by simple marottes, traditional puppets called mariotes. Similarly, in the nativity plays, jocul papusilor, of Romania the second half, in which comic numbers based on the encounter between different ethnic groups were incorporated, has outlasted the sacred half of the performance, becoming an independent performance which satirises political and religious views. Intermediate dramatic forms can be found in the Czech cribs called jesle or gesle. These are made up of several autonomous plays involving domestic characters with no link to the Nativity (see Czech Republic).

There are many representations of the Nativity, of various degrees of sophistication, around the world. The educational and spiritual mission of some religious orders created conditions favourable to the development, on every continent, of these representations, which often gained their dramatic force from their syncretism. Cribs, each with their local variations, are very widespread in Mexico and most of the countries of Latin America. In these traditions, local characters move around volcanoes that spit fire or alongside majestic waterfalls, all animated by simple mechanisms. Nativities are also presented in the shadow theatre of Indonesia. They form part of the wayang kulit wahyu performances created in around 1960 in Solo (today known as Surakarta) and Java, which present episodes from the Old and New Testament (see Wayang). In Peking, China, in 1938, the famous shadow theatre company Qing Min Sheng presented pieces drawn from the Bible. Contemporary puppet theatre, including experimental work such as that of Bread and Puppet Theater, has also been inspired by the theme of the Nativity. An international festival celebrating the mystery of the Nativity presented in puppet theatre has been held in Lutsk, Ukraine, since 1993.


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