Nativity plays are among the many popular traditions that are associated with Christmas. For example, in Britain, it is traditional for primary school children to put on a Nativity play at Christmas time.
What is a Nativity Play?
The word ‘nativity’ is derived from the Latin word ‘natal’ which means birth.
In its essence, a Nativity Play is one that recreates the scene of the birth of Jesus Christ in the stable. Its actors narrate and enact the details associated with Jesus’ birth such as the visit of the shepherds and the three Wise Men. The children play the main roles of Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Wise Men.
St Francis of Assisi and the First Nativity Play
St Francis of Assisi is widely credited with having created the very first Nativity play in Italy around 1223. What prompted St Francis to come up with the idea of bringing to life the entire nativity scene was hard reality. Widespread illiteracy prevented people from reading the Bible for themselves. So, though they were ‘Christians’, they could not read the Christmas story in the Bible themselves. Another stumbling block was the fact that Latin was the predominant language used for worship services in churches in those days. A language which they didn’t understand.
It was to address this lacuna that St Francis came up with a novel, and hitherto unattempted, idea. It wasn’t enough to just tell the story of the first Christmas to people. He wanted to show them what it must have been like on the actual night of Jesus’ birth. To this end, he set up a nativity scene, complete with live animals, a manger and some hay. He looked to the local villagers to enact the key roles of Mary and Joseph and the Shepherds. Needless to add, the world’s first ever Nativity play was an unqualified success.
In the earlier days, it was common to use actual animals, including an ox and donkey and other farm animals (barring pigs) in the Nativity plays. These days it is more common for children to don animal-like costumes or to have animal props.
Cribs and the Nativity Scene
Gradually, as the popularity of nativity plays grew outside of Italy as well, cribs came onto the scene. Cribs were nothing but another depiction of the nativity scene, complete with paper cut-outs or wooden figures of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and Wise Men and farm animals.
In many European countries such as Italy and Malta, the crib forms the central focus of all Christmas decoration. Cribs go back a long way in the city of Naples in Italy. Here, cribs have been used to decorate houses and churches since the 1020s, much before the nativity plays appeared on the scene.
The World’s Largest Nativity Crib Scene
Naples in Italy is also the home to the world’s largest nativity crib scene. It is located in the ‘Museo Nazionale di S. Martino’ and features some 162 people, 80 animals, angels, and about 450 other smaller objects.
Malta and Christmas Cribs
Cribs are inherent to Christmas celebrations in Malta. Although initially imported from Italy, the first true Maltese crib is believed to have been made in Malta sometime in 1617. It was prominently displayed in the Dominican Friars Church in Rabat. One of the oldest preserved cribs in Malta is the one that can be seen in St Peter’s Monastery in Mdina and which dates back to 1670. It is highly treasured is taken care of by the Benedictine Nuns who reside in that monastery.
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