As Christmas approaches, churches all over the world put up outdoor Nativity scenes for their neighbors to enjoy, and to perhaps reflect on the meaning of this annual feast. As the old adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. This visual lesson receives no greater attention than at Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican City. At the very epicenter of the Roman Catholic Church, this depiction of the birth of Jesus Christ is a favorite tradition for pilgrims and tourists alike to come and see the Vatican’s nativity scene.

The History Behind the Vatican's Nativity Scene

History behind the Vatican’s Nativity scene

In 1982, Pope John Paul II instituted the presence of the Vatican’s Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square. During his papacy, he maintained that these portrayals were “a sign of faith in God.” Believing this, he would routinely bless statues of the baby Jesus destined for Nativity scenes at parishes near to and far from Vatican City. Born into poverty, Jesus Christ identifies with the brokenness and spiritual hunger of humanity. While the creche is normally on display from early in the Advent season — four weeks of preparation leading up to Christmas — the Jesus figure is absent from the manger until Christmas Eve. The scene is taken down upon the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, i.e. the 12th day of Christmas, in early January.

The History Behind the Vatican's Nativity Scene

Vatican’s Nativity scene through the years

The appearance of the Nativity scene varies from year to year. For example, the 2017 exhibit included terracotta statues of the hungry, the imprisoned, the sick and the naked — those whom Jesus would tell his followers to serve. The 2007 creche was more traditional, depicting the Holy Family surrounded by angels in the stable. In 2016, the government of Malta donated a traditional fishing boat to appear alongside the first Christmas participants as a way of highlighting the plight of migrants (in earlier times, Maltese emigrants risked life and limb to sail to Italy). The Vatican’s Nativity scene takes a different twist in 2018 as it is sculpted from sand by four artists. These craftsmen are from Holland, Russia, the United States and the Czech Republic. The sand hails from the Jesolo area in northeastern Italy. The creche will be revealed when St. Peter’s large Christmas tree is lit.

At Christmas time, St. Peter’s Square feels like the center of the world. Catholics, Protestants, Jews and people of all faiths (and no faith) are drawn to its beauty and profound majesty. The artistry and excellence found in the Vatican’s Nativity scene are only part of the attraction. Also adding to the magic of the season are the ancient and ornate edifices; the pomp and pageantry of Catholic ritual; the longstanding holiday traditions of the Italian people; and the chance to see the pope: always a historic moment. These experiences must not be missed.

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