The Vatican

The custom of the Nativity Scene, impregnated with popular spirituality

On December 3, 2022, in St. Peter's Square, the traditional inauguration of the Nativity Scene and the lighting of the Christmas tree will take place. Three years ago Pope Francis signed in Greccio the apostolic letter Admirabile signum on the value and meaning of the Nativity Scene.

Antonino Piccione-December 2, 2022-Reading time: 4 minutes
Vatican Bethlehem

The traditional inauguration of the Nativity Scene and the lighting of the Christmas tree will take place in St. Peter's Square on Saturday, December 3 at 5:00 pm. The ceremony will be presided over by Cardinal Fernando Vérgez AlzagaRaffaella Petrini, President of the Governorate of the Vatican City State, in the presence of Sister Raffaella Petrini, Secretary General of the same Governorate. In the morning, the delegations from Sutrio, Rosello and Guatemala will be received in audience by Pope Francis for the official presentation of the gifts. Details in the article by María José Atienza.

To make the crib, Pope Francis writes in his apostolic letter Admirabile signum (signed in Greccio three years ago, on December 1, 2019), "one learns as a child: when father and mother, together with grandparents, pass on this joyful custom, which contains in itself a rich popular spirituality."

Wonder and emotion flow from the manger because "the gift of life, already mysterious to us every time, fascinates us even more when we see that the One who was born of Mary is the source and support of all life". [...] Often children - but adults too! - like to add to the crib other little figures that do not seem to have any connection with the Gospel stories. However, this imagination is intended to express that in this new world inaugurated by Jesus, there is room for everything human and for every creature. From the shepherd to the blacksmith, from the baker to the musicians, from the women carrying water jugs to the children playing...: all this represents everyday holiness, the joy of doing everyday things in an extraordinary way, when Jesus shares his divine life with us".

As always, the Holy Father emphasized, "God is disconcerting, unpredictable, continually outside our schemes. Thus, the manger, while showing us God as he entered the world, provokes us to think of our life as part of God's; it invites us to become his disciples if we want to attain the ultimate meaning of life.

In front of the Nativity Scene, writes the Pope, "one's mind willingly goes back to when one was a child and looked forward to the moment when one began to build it. These memories induce us to be ever more aware of the great gift that the transmission of the faith has given us; and at the same time they make us feel the duty and joy of sharing the same experience with our children and grandchildren."

For this reason, Francis concludes, "the Nativity Scene is part of the sweet and demanding process of transmitting the faith. From infancy and then in all ages of life, it educates us to contemplate Jesus, to feel the love of God for us, to feel and believe that God is with us and we are with Him, all children and brothers and sisters thanks to the Child Son of God and the Virgin Mary. And to feel that in this lies happiness".

The blessing of the images of the Child Jesus

It was Pope Paul VI, during the Angelus of December 21, 1969, who gave the blessing for the first time to the statuettes of the Child Jesus and to the Nativity scenes.

Since then, every Sunday before Christmas, during the Angelus, the crowd gathered in St. Peter's awaits and invokes that blessing. "Because the manger," Montini said, "revives the memory of the great event, the birth of Jesus, the Savior, the Son of God made man; and then because the manger represents with candid and naive simplicity the picture of Bethlehem; and it becomes an evangelical scene, it becomes a lesson of Christian spirit, a message of custom." And then because the manger warms, "like a home of good and pure love, and one feels a little enlightened about all the problems of this mysterious adventure of ours, which is our life in time, on earth".

Finally, a mention to one of the most visited places in Rome at Christmas: its construction began in 1972 with the idea of the ecological operator Giuseppe Ianni.

For 40 years, Ama (the company in charge of urban sanitation in the capital) has made available to the public an ancient deposit for the faithful reproduction of the Bethlehem of more than 2,000 years ago, which gets bigger every year. Institutional and religious personalities, heads of state, pontiffs and thousands of believers have visited and paid homage to the Bethlehem of the Garbage Dump.

Over time, it has grown a lot thanks to the gifts received from all over the world: such as the more than 2,000 stones, 350 of which come from various corners of the planet, each with its own label.

With various scenes from the daily life of the time and countless biblical references: the small sacks of lentils recall Esau, who gave up his birthright for a plate of lentils; the water fountain recalls Moses, who with his staff struck the rock from which water flowed in abundance for the Israelites; the sack of coal is a reference to the prophet Isaiah and then the ever-present sign of bread to represent the Eucharist. It is Jesus who becomes bread for all of us. 

Pope John Paul II, for many years, visited the Bethlehem of the Garbage Collectors. At Christmas 1985, he said: "I am a pilgrim in different parts of the world, in different countries, even here in Italy, in different regions, and in Rome in different parishes. But among all these pilgrimages, there is also the one that is systematic and is repeated every year, which began in '79, this pilgrimage here, in the house where the cleaners of Rome found an idea, a manger. I was invited the first time, and then I come even without being invited, I come every year. It would not be true to say uninvited, because I am always invited, but even without invitation I would make this visit. So with this pilgrimage I want to find myself in an environment very close to the one in which Jesus was born".

The authorAntonino Piccione

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