Fr. Scott Haynes
The Crib of Bethlehem
Fr. Scott A. Haynes
It is curious that the fascination of the crib never fades, even though the figures grow old and chipped and the background, with its brown paper rocks, sprinkled with glittering silver, becomes more fantastic every year. It is a fascination that few can resist. Though people may smile at the extravagances and tinsel and silver paper of some church cribs, yet they still take their turn in the queue to light a candle and to gaze into the manger.
Children never try to resist the lure of the crib. To them its chief attraction lies in the fact that it tells a story, and a story with a baby in it. Children, left to themselves, are perfectly at home at the crib. Young children hardly see the figures in the grotto as puppets; for them it is all real, as real as it was to the peasants of 14th century Germany, who used to take turns at rocking the Christ-child to sleep in his crib, or like the little Dutch boy who took the bambino for a ride on his bicycle.
It is often thought that St. Francis made the first crib, but the devotion is far older than that. It goes back to the first days of the Church, when the actual site of Christ's birth and the clay manger in which he lay were venerated in Bethlehem. In time a basilica was built over the site. Copies of this crib spread to Rome and over the Christian world. Veneration expanded with the centuries. The crib that was used at Christmas might be a model of the clay manger, or a painting or a mosaic of the Nativity. Various ceremonies grew up around it, until by the 13th century they had evolved into theatrical drama and opera combined, with a snatch of folk-dancing thrown in. Then Pope Honorius stopped the whole thing, and sixteen years afterwards, St. Francis of Assisi was allowed to make a wooden manger, to fill it with hay, to tether an ox and ass nearby, and to gather round it a group of people who sang songs and carols in honor of the birth of the Christ-child. That is the beginning of the crib as we know it.