The Babe of Bethlehem: A Sicilian Christmas Tradition

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As we approach Advent and the Christmas season, many Americans begin their annual ritual of dragging out boxes of holiday decorations. One cannot experience this customary process without recalling memories of past festivities with family and friends.

My family follows typical American Christmas traditions with a twist of Italian/Sicilian customs. The focus is food, faith, and la famiglia – the family! Growing up, the heart of our home was my paternal grandmother. The daughter of Sicilian immigrants, my grandmother was only seven when her father died tragically in a factory fire. She was forced to grow up quickly and take on responsibility at a young age because her mother did not speak English. Despite disappointments and heartaches throughout her life, she maintained a great sense of humor and strong faith in God. She instilled in her loved ones the belief that far more valuable than the gifts we give or receive, the food we eat, or the extravagant adornments, Christmas is about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ – fully God and fully man – bringing joy, hope and love to the world.

One of my most cherished memories of Christmastime is watching my grandmother lovingly displaying a beautiful, but well-worn, nativity crib/crèche. The porcelain figurines of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the three wise men, and the shepherds wore clothes made of brightly colored silk-like material. As a child I was allowed to play with them, but carefully supervised. Little did I understand then the significance of the crèche to our Christian faith and especially the great importance the nativity crib represented to our Sicilian culture.

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The history of the nativity crib dates back to Italy in 1223 with St. Francis of Assisi. To commemorate the birth of Christ, he created a living reenactment of the manger scene, complete with hay and oxen. St. Francis was so deeply moved by the scene he could barely utter a word. He could only say ‘the Babe of Bethlehem’. The nativity crib, or in Italian presepio or presepe, as it is known today, with three-dimensional statues using various materials such as wood, gold, silver, ivory and coral, is believed to have started in Sicily in the fifteenth century; probably because of their puppet craftsmanship. The Jesuits saw the nativity crib as an excellent teaching visual and the spread of Christianity grew throughout Europe. By the seventeenth century the tradition expanded to England. However, the Puritans in America banned the nativity crib, citing it as idolatry. Fortunately, as Europeans emigrated to America in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, they brought their Christmas traditions and customs with them, including the nativity crib and the Christmas tree. Now Americans of many faiths enjoy the season with these treasured traditions.

My grandmother died in 1977 and her cherished nativity crib has not been seen for years, but the life-giving message of the nativity crib still resonates. Often I reminisce about those simpler Christmas celebrations, when the emphasis of the season was on Christ who came to save us and less on Santa. This holy season, let’s rekindle in our hearts a desire to follow the star that leads to Jesus, the Babe of Bethlehem, who offers us His gifts of love, joy, and hope.

Buon Natale and a holy Christmas season.

(image credits: Pixabay.com)