Custom has it that once the last mass is celebrated, the whole family makes a visit to the crèche to see the Infant Jesus. The youngest children who cannot attend Midnight Mass are taken on Christmas day to see the "baby Jesus" and to leave their offering for the collection of the Infant Jesus with the "beautiful angel".
Custom has it that once the last mass is celebrated, the whole family makes a visit to the crèche to see the Infant Jesus. The youngest children who cannot attend Midnight Mass are taken on Christmas day to see the "baby Jesus" and to leave their offering for the collection of the Infant Jesus with the "beautiful angel".

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Infant Jesus model

Santon by Paul Fouque, Aix en Provence

Photo : Musée national des arts et traditions populaires (MNATP), Paris, France
Collection : Musée national des arts et traditions populaires (MNATP), Paris, France
Century
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


The crèche refers to the animals’ manger in which, according to Saint Luke, the Virgin placed Jesus when he was born. It later came to mean the place of the Nativity and then the Nativity.

The two oldest depictions of the Nativity date from the IVth century. The first is a wall painting that decorates the funeral chamber of a Christian family living around the year 380. This pictorial work was discovered in 1877 in the catacombs of Saint Sebastian in Rome. The other reference is to a painted scene on a sarcophagus in the Basilica of Saint Maximin and depicts the three Wise Men worshipping the Christ Child.

The term crèche (from the German "Krippe") appeared in the XIIth century. Legend connects it to Saint Francis of Assisi: he was said to have celebrated Midnight Mass in 1223 with the approval of the Pope in Greccio, Italy in a stable where men and beasts re-enacted the Nativity.

Nativity plays date back to the Middle Ages when liturgical dramas, mysteries and plays were performed originally in churches and later just outside in the church porch or church square. The first church crèches appeared in the XVIth century and their m Read More
The crèche refers to the animals’ manger in which, according to Saint Luke, the Virgin placed Jesus when he was born. It later came to mean the place of the Nativity and then the Nativity.

The two oldest depictions of the Nativity date from the IVth century. The first is a wall painting that decorates the funeral chamber of a Christian family living around the year 380. This pictorial work was discovered in 1877 in the catacombs of Saint Sebastian in Rome. The other reference is to a painted scene on a sarcophagus in the Basilica of Saint Maximin and depicts the three Wise Men worshipping the Christ Child.

The term crèche (from the German "Krippe") appeared in the XIIth century. Legend connects it to Saint Francis of Assisi: he was said to have celebrated Midnight Mass in 1223 with the approval of the Pope in Greccio, Italy in a stable where men and beasts re-enacted the Nativity.

Nativity plays date back to the Middle Ages when liturgical dramas, mysteries and plays were performed originally in churches and later just outside in the church porch or church square. The first church crèches appeared in the XVIth century and their mannered and stilted form replaced the theatrical style of medieval liturgies. The fashion for family crèches expanded in the XVIIIth century.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Provencal Crèche

Provençal village built on a mountain peak. This composition already displays the traditional elements of people going about their customary activities. Only the figures depicting the Nativity and the visit of the Wise Men are in traditional Biblical costumes.

Photo: Musée national des arts et traditions populaires (MNATP), Paris, France
Collection : Musée national des arts et traditions populaires (MNATP), Paris, France
XIXth Century
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


While church crèches were very widespread in Italy and Germany from the VIth century, they were less successful in France. The Neapolitan crèches developed in the VIIth century as a conspicuous expression of devotion and became prestigious features in royal dwellings and noble residences. The oldest and best known of the French church crèches are those of Nogent le Rotrou, Sainte Marie d’Oléron and the Basilica of Saint Maximin. Crèches with Italian influence can be found from the XVIIIth century in the churches of Provence.

In Canada, church crèches representing Nativity figures appeared from the very beginnings of the colony. It is clear that the religious orders that came from France established the tradition here.
While church crèches were very widespread in Italy and Germany from the VIth century, they were less successful in France. The Neapolitan crèches developed in the VIIth century as a conspicuous expression of devotion and became prestigious features in royal dwellings and noble residences. The oldest and best known of the French church crèches are those of Nogent le Rotrou, Sainte Marie d’Oléron and the Basilica of Saint Maximin. Crèches with Italian influence can be found from the XVIIIth century in the churches of Provence.

In Canada, church crèches representing Nativity figures appeared from the very beginnings of the colony. It is clear that the religious orders that came from France established the tradition here.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

A crèche set up in the interior of a Church

A thatched roof stable set up in the chancel of the church welcomes the Holy Family, the shepherds and the Wise Men. On the right, a cardboard display recalls the town of Bethlehem while on the left the village looks like those found in Quebec.

Photograph: Benoît Paquet, Sainte-Foy, Canada, 1989

Sainte-Foy, Quebec, CANADA
© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Neapolitan crèches enjoyed great success in France from the XVIIth century. They displayed, often in the setting of a ruin, the Nativity, the angels bringing good tidings to the shepherds and scenes of caravans with inns, markets, animals, musicians...

The sumptuousness of the contents and settings and the skillful layout of Neapolitan crèches made these precious crèches the preserve of the well-to-do.

Neapolitan crèches enjoyed great success in France from the XVIIth century. They displayed, often in the setting of a ruin, the Nativity, the angels bringing good tidings to the shepherds and scenes of caravans with inns, markets, animals, musicians...

The sumptuousness of the contents and settings and the skillful layout of Neapolitan crèches made these precious crèches the preserve of the well-to-do.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Neapolitan crèche

The Holy Family has sheltered in a ruined building surrounded by shepherds and kings, accompanied by musicians. Buildings in ruin symbolize the end of the old order and the dawning of a new world with the birth of Christ. The grace of the poses and faces and the sumptuous clothing are well suited to the depiction of a secular holiday.

Photo: Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France
Collection : Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris, France

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Identify how people, events, and ideas of the past shape the present;
  • Describe the Christmas tradition of the crèche and its historical development;
  • Compare the Christian tradition of the nativity, between cultures and over time.

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