Craft of manger scenes has some history

Did you ever wonder where the manger scene originated or how it came into public display?

Legend has it the concept of the manger scene is linked to a 5th century stone freeze on the walls of the catacombs in Rome. This freeze was carved by an unknown artist. Figures of shepherds and that of Mary have been discovered elsewhere.

More accurate records reveal the first depiction of the nativity can be related to the medieval miracle plays, which were enacted in early churches. In these displays, ordinary people dramatized the story of the Holy child’s birth.

In time, the original details of the story became somewhat crude and the church demanded that the plays were to take place outside the church; the plays had become secular rather than religious.

A religious man, Francis of Assisi became aware of the plays becoming somewhat worldly and sought to return the Christians to the original sense of the dramatization and to make it more simple. In 1224, the Pope permitted Francis to set up a manger scene in the town of Greccio, Italy. This was in hope of visualizing the coming of Christ and bring people close to the real sense of Christmas.

The figure of the Christ child was carved from wood, real people enacted the remainder of the scene plus actual animals were used. This display proved a great success and many were very sincere with their reverence.

This is also a legend, but it is likely that the small crèche (display), or “praesepio” as it was termed in Italy, came from that country. From this area the concept spread to Germany then to France then on to Spain.

The first commercial or religious displayed figures found were made of terra cota, wood and clay and the figures were attired in real cloth clothing. Prior to and into the renaissance, the figures were painted in lively colors and dressed in very elaborate clothing.

Later, some figures were equipped with mechanical devices that let them move; even angels descended from above and a diorama was formed even with running water and waterfalls.

The home display of the crèche first appeared in France, then on to Italy. As in Italy, large manger scenes were placed in churches at Christmas. Legend has it that about 250 years ago a Frenchman sold small terra cota figurines of Mary, Joseph, the Christ child and shepherds on a corner in Marseilles, France and was quite successful, as all figures were sold.

From then on, many crafters made small clay figures at home calling them “santons” (little saints). Many families emulated their neighbors using clay deposits to make the figures. Santons soon became a religious display year-round in most homes.

Today, as in yesteryears, the santons are an important part of family observances at Christmas in many parts of southern France. Some of the santons have become heirlooms and have regularly increased in numbers in most homes.

Ever since 1803 a Slanton Fair is held in Marseilles, France, every Christmas. In Germany, the crèche is called the “krippe”; it arrived here in the 1500s. The first displays were in churches and the figures were near life-size and were carved from wood.

During the long dark evenings all members of the family would whittle and carve these small figurines, each to their own skill. Many of the small German “krippes” are made yet today in and near Oberammergan.

The woodcarvers of the Alpine village also took to carving these small figurines for nativity scenes. These carving crèches possess a distinct characteristic because they are more simple than the larger types of the Bavarian carvers.

Most of the carving originated in small cottage workshops and are of one family. As is the case with most woodcarvers, each owns his own set of wood working and carving tools and is very particular of their use.

In these homes boys begin in an apprentice position and follow this beginning place for three years, after which, if qualified, becomes a journey man.

Another five years are required before he is considered a skilled carver, then after a few tests, perhaps a master carver. This last position is designated master only if he can carve and teach others the fine art of wood carving.

Since the beginnings of the manger scene displays, every medium has been used in manufacturing the figurines of the Christ child, Mary, Joseph and associated accessories. Plaster of Paris, paper mache, ceramics, glass and metal have been employed. Wooden carvings are now only in collectors’ hands.

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