It is the 24th of December 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The Year was 1223.
For this Christmas Eve show, we will be going back to a cave in Medieval central Italy. Francis of Assisi and Pope Honorius III had discussed ways in which piety might be revived around the celebration of Christ's Nativity. Francis told the Pope that the hills in Greccio reminded him of Bethlehem and that perhaps he could stage a recreation of the nativity scene and preach to all who came. And thus, on Christmas Eve in 1223, the first nativity scene was reenacted. Let's talk about these ubiquitous Advent scenes and maybe even ask why you might find an owl on the top of some stables.
Of course, we know that the nativity suffers from anachronism and a blending of text with tradition. It is only from the Gospel of Matthew that we hear about the Wise Men, and only in the Gospel of Luke that we hear of the shepherds. And all the other creatures? In the Gospel Infancy of Pseudo-Matthew, we read:
"And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib."
Other apocryphal tellings of the story bring together the cave and stable and introduce animals from peacocks, roosters, a lion, a dove, etc. By the Renaissance, the nativity would become a famous scene for painting. The almost limitless nature of animals to represent was a welcome challenge to any artist.
And might we consider what good this menagerie of animals has done throughout the centuries. For years my two young sons were far too shy to join in the Faith Lutheran Church Christmas Play. But from 2011 to 2016, the bashful Christmas cow's role was held down by a van Voorhis boy.
But the playfulness of nativity scenes hit its apogee in 17th century Catalonia. It was then and there that the now-popular character of the Caganer was first inserted into the scene. Caganer is translated as "the defecator" or "pooper." In what is more common than you might think, try looking around nativity scenes for a man in a red Catalan cap, in a decidedly “squatty" position. Just a few thoughts as to why this might be there:
- Someone defecating, especially in Early Modern art, can represent the contrasting of something very heavenly with something VERY earthy.
- Someone relieving themselves would also be a way of slyly desecrating something that was seen only for the upper classes. Early nativity scenes were so ornate that they could only be sponsored by the church or owned by the wealthy. During the French Revolution, it was common to attack nativity scenes as bourgeois. Also, in some places, they came to represent Catholicism, while the Christmas Tree would represent Protestantism.
A Catalonian tradition has spread into other parts of the world of having children look for the Caganer with his red hat in the nativity. Luckily, before this character came along, the living nativity had given way to statues. And so, the next time you see a nativity scene, you can not only look for the red cap but also remember the long tradition that dates to Christmas Eve in Greccio, Italy, in 1223.
The Christmas Eve Reading for today comes from 1968, from Astronaut Frank Gorman onboard Apollo 8. Beaming back breathtaking images of the earth from space, the three Astronauts read from the Creation narrative. Then Gorman spoke this prayer and Christmas Eve Benediction to millions watching and listening across the world.
"Give us, O God, the vision which can see thy love in the world, in spite of human failure. Give us the faith to trust the goodness in spite of our ignorance and weakness. Give us the knowledge that we may continue to pray with understanding hearts, and show us what each one of us can do to set forth the coming of the day of universal peace. Amen."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 24th of December 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, the father of a veritable Animal Farm of potential Nativity Friendly Beasts. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. Remember, the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.