Away in a Manger
The kitchen sink, the dog’s bowl, and the milk jug are all necessary things but not ones to inspire great journeys, dramas, art, and songs. The same was true for a certain ordinary cattle manger. That is, until this rough-cut feeding trough cradled a newborn baby. It’s not a surprise anymore because you know the baby was Jesus and you know that Jesus turns ordinary things into glorious things, including you. But let’s look at some journeys, dramas, and art inspired by the manger we sing about in “Away in a Manger.”
Artists Around the World
The first people who crafted small nativity scenes were often poor. They used materials that were easy to find without cost, such as leftover wood, bits of clay, or even bread dough. Today nativity scenes can be found all over the world, made from local materials with figures or symbols representing each culture.
Find the soapstone figures from Kenya, the clay African chiefs from Cameroon, the woven fiber figures from the Philippines, the brightly painted wood from India, the gourds carved with details from Peru, the olive wood set from Israel, and the bright foil nativity from Poland.
Artists from poorer countries are encouraged to sell their work to support their families. Look for fair trade sellers to support these artists and to help you celebrate the birth of Jesus with the worldwide church.
From the beginning Christians painted scenes of Jesus’ birth in the catacombs under the city of Rome, but St. Francis of Assisi is usually given credit for making nativity scenes popular.
In 1223 or 1224 (historians aren’t clear on the exact year) St. Francis and his friend Giovanni built a living nativity scene. They set up a manger, filled it with hay, and brought in an ox and donkey. They invited everyone to a special Christmas Eve service. Firelight glowed brightly as everyone gathered and sang. It is said that St. Francis stood by the manger. Filled with joy and compassion, he shed tears as he spoke of the humble birth of our Savior.
St. Francis’s manger scene resembled a typical stable of his day, not the cave in Bethlehem. This representation of a pitched roof stable is still popular today.
From St. Francis in Italy the idea of nativity scenes spread across the Alps to France and other places in Europe. It came to the United States with German settlers.
When the 12th-century Crusaders came to Bethlehem, they reduced the doorway leading into the Church of the Nativity. They lowered it so that no camel or horseback riders could enter the church to loot it. Today it is called the “Door of Humility” because visitors have to bend low to enter through it.
Names for nativity scenes: Crèche (France), Krippe (Germany), Presepio (Italy), Belem (Portugal), Nacimento (Spain), Szopka (Poland)
Puppet theaters in France and Italy were used to tell the nativity story. The word marionette comes from the French word for ‘little Mary,’ the figure in the puppet nativity show.
Magi is another name for the Wise Men. Even following the star, it took the Magi a long time to travel to see Jesus, so they would not have been part of the manger scene. They arrived later, when Jesus was still a small child living in Bethlehem.
Closer and Closer
A long time ago in Europe, some families began setting out small nativity scenes in their homes. They did not add Baby Jesus until Christmas Eve. The shepherds followed on Christmas Day, and 12 days later the Wise Men were put into place. Some people moved the Wise Men figures a bit closer to the manger each day in the 12 days leading up to Epiphany (the January holiday that celebrates the coming of the Wise Men and Jesus’ making himself known to the Gentiles).
If you have a nativity scene, use it to remember the wonderful things that happened when our Savior came into the world. God came closer to us when he sent Jesus.
In Bethlehem there is a city square called Manger Square! It is in front of the Church of the Nativity. Even in today’s newspapers you can read about parades and protests happening in Manger Square.
The Church of the Nativity is said to mark the spot of Jesus’ manger bed. Nearly 300 years after Jesus’ birth, Helena, the 80-year-old mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, decided to travel to Israel. It was a journey of more than 1,400 miles (2,240 km)! But as a Christian, Helena believed it was important to go where Jesus lived and taught. When she came to Bethlehem she wanted to see the place of Jesus’ birth. It was well marked, but not in honor to Jesus. It was a pagan worship spot! A previous ruler wanted to hide anything about Christianity, so he dedicated it to one of his gods. A grove of trees camouflaged the area. Helena had the trees removed and cleared the way into the rock cave. (Clues from earlier writings described Jesus’ birth in a cave. Around Bethlehem, it was typical for homes or inns to be attached to caves.)
Helena built a church over the cave and decorated it. She ordered beautiful mosaic designs of birds, flowers, and vines to cover the floor. You can still see part of this floor through a trap door under the current floor.
Two hundred years later, this church was destroyed, but another Christian emperor rebuilt it. This time the floor included a mosaic of the Wise Men. The church building would have been destroyed again by invading Persians, but when they saw the pictures of the Wise Men dressed in Persian clothing, they thought the church was in honor of them. Today visitors to Bethlehem can see much of that second church.