Christmas morning had finally come! Presents, wrapped in shiny red or green paper and topped with ribbon bows, were stacked beneath the Christmas tree. But first, I looked on the coffee table where the Mary and Joseph figures had been reverently kneeling, gazing with love at an empty manger for weeks. There He was, the tiny Baby Jesus, lying in the brown wood manger filled with moss. Our manger scene at home was never complete until Christmas day.
The 13th C. theologian St. Bonaventure credits St. Francis of Assisi with creating the Christmas tradition of a manger scene. In his biography, “Life of St. Francis,” Bonaventure tells us that Francis was inspired by the sight of the traditional place of Jesus’ birth when he visited the Holy Land. In 1223, St. Francis sought permission from Pope Honorius III to create something “for the kindling of devotion to the birth of Christ.” On that Christmas Eve in a rock niche near the town square of Grecio, Italy, St. Francis put together a scene of a live ox and donkey beside a hay-filled manger.
“He preached to people around the Nativity of the poor King…the Babe of Bethlehem…a dear friend of this holy man affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvelously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep.”
The vision wasn’t the only miracle that night.
“The hay of that manger, being preserved by the people, was wondrously found to cure all diseases of cattle and many other pestilences.”
After such a beginning, the inclusion of a nativity scene quickly became part of Christian Christmas tradition. In 1291, Pope Nicholas IV decreed that a permanent nativity scene be erected at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Attributed to the sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio, the marble figures are believed to be the oldest nativity in Italy. By the end of the 14th C., almost every church in Italy included either live or statue/figurine manger scenes in their Christmas services.
Living nativities fit well into the tradition of pantomimes and mystery plays which were popular in the Middle ages. Renaissance art was dominated with the subject of the Nativity, artists and sculptors telling and retelling the story in unique and beautiful ways. Wealthy patrons even had themselves inserted into the Nativity story. The manger scene was often expanded to include the little town of Bethlehem and the countryside.
Manger scenes are not really historically accurate. They usually incorporate the shepherds and the three Magi along with sheep, donkeys, oxen, and camels. Our manger scene at home has come to include exotic animals like antelope and swans, and a cheetah walks next to the camels. The story of Christ’s birth varies in its telling in the Gospels of the Bible. All are combined in our manger scenes, this adjustment to the timeline simply allowing us to have the whole dramatic and beautiful story gathered together in one place.
The tradition of the Nativity is uniquely kept all around the world in displays both live and static. In past years, Holy Family Catholic Church celebrated the festival of Los Posadas, a tradition in Spanish-speaking countries. This reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s search for a room took the Nativity to the streets of New Braunfels in a lovely candle-lit walking drama. Many other local churches have manger scenes set up on their front lawns. I remember being a shepherd for a night in the living Nativity at First Protestant Church when I was in Jr. High. And we cannot forget the many Christmas pageants, with school children acting the parts of both humans and beasts.
The seven Timmerman Sisters of Geronimo (just up Hwy. 123 towards Seguin) were well-known for their family’s nativity scene. In 1936, Mrs. William Timmermann found a description in Hermann Seele’s Die Cypress, of the 1849 Christmas celebration at her grandparents’ home, the Waissenhaus (the orphanage out near Gruene). Seele described seeing a manger scene set within a circle of honeycomb limestone rocks beneath a native cedar Christmas tree. Mrs. Timmermann, the seven sisters’ mother, then reestablished this tradition of her grandparents by setting up a manger scene surrounded by honeycomb rocks beneath the Timmermann Christmas tree. The scene grew to include a miniature Waissenhaus, a waterfall and other little vignettes which were nestled within an ever-growing ring of honeycomb limestone rocks.
Special figures for the orphanage were created in Germany after WWII. A copy of Seele’s story was sent to a West German friend. Disguising herself as an old woman gathering seeds, she made her way to a home in East Germany and placed a note under a rock which described the children and adult figures needed for the scene. The friend then arranged to return and pick up the finished pieces which she sent to the Timmermanns in Texas. The completed Waisenhaus scene appeared under the Timmermann tree in 1949 — on the hundredth anniversary of the Christmas described by Hermann Seele.
Many of us remember visiting the Timmermann Sisters at Christmas to marvel at their manger scene. Surrounded by honeycomb rocks, the Nativity and Texas Hill Country scenes spilled out from under the wide-spreading branches of the Texas cedar tree quite nearly filling the entire room. For many years, the scene was also created at the Heritage Exhibit which was put on at the NB Civic Center during Wurstfest.
Of course, depending on where you are from, a manger scene has a different name. In Spanish-speaking countries it is known as belén which is literally “Bethlehem.” Churches and cathedrals have elaborate scenes which include the manger, the city, and the countryside. German-speakers call the manger scene a Weihnachtskrippe or “Christmas crib.” While the French call it a crèche, the Italians call it a presepio, but both mean a “crib.”
All these names reflect the most important part of Christmas — the Baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas morning.
Sources: San Marcos Daily Record, Austin American Statesman, New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung, Texas Library Journal Vol 29 No. 4 — Sophienburg Museum & Archives;