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December 16, 2021

The Christmas Crib – Re-enacting the Nativity Story Within Your Home

With Christmas almost upon us, most homes are now adorned with sparkling decorations and festive cheer. Each household has its own personal style and colour scheme. Gold and red nestles against deep green, silver baubles catch the light, and rooms are draped with elaborate streamers. Lights twinkle at windows and balconies, as figures of Santa Claus cling precariously to balustrades.

And yet, the one common item of decoration that is always at the heart of Christmas has to be the beloved Nativity crib – in Maltese, presepju. Practically every home displays a version of it at this time of year. Whether homemade or shop-bought, traditional or modern, elaborate or simple – this beautiful tradition has always prevailed in residences around the world, as well as in churches, retail centres, and many other venues.

When and where did Christmas cribs originate?

It was, indeed, St Francis of Assisi who established this custom, all the way back in 1223. He desired to create a visual representation of the night when the Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem. With the help of a close friend called John, the scene with which we are so familiar was re-enacted live on Christmas Eve in the nearby woods of Greccio.

The townspeople and other friars carried candles and torches to the spot and joined St Francis and John in front of the recreated scene of that blessed night in Bethlehem. They celebrated Mass and rejoiced together as a community.

This idea soon became widespread in European towns and then further across the world. Each country adopted its own style of crib, and soon, many homes worldwide were hosting their very own Nativity scene indoors. Obviously, the indoor version did not feature real-life people and animals!

Here in Malta, cribs started being built in the first half of the seventeenth century.

In the time of the Knights, the local nobility began the tradition of setting up Christmas cribs in their own homes. The figurines were expensive at the time, as were the highly artistic cribs brought here from Naples, but the aristocrats could obviously afford them. It wasn’t until the cribs began to be crafted locally that they became more easily available to the Maltese public.

Various well-known cribs began to be displayed in churches every year. One of these was built in the early 1600s and could be seen annually at the Dominican Church in Rabat, Malta. Another one in Mdina, still found at St Peter’s Monastery, dates back to 1826 and is, in fact, the oldest known static crib on the islands. A few years later, people began creating mechanical cribs, with running water and moving figurines – each more elaborate and imaginative.

Today, a few villages in Malta and Gozo go a step further and host live cribs in their neighbourhood. The villagers dress up in period clothes and carry out the chores they would encounter if they lived in Jesus’s time. Live animals saunter around, and children delight as they discover that the Baby Jesus is an actual baby, held lovingly by a young woman representing His mother Mary. One of the most famous of these live cribs has to be Bethlehem in Ghajnsielem, held annually in the Gozitan village and drawing large crowds from all over the Maltese islands.

So, what is so special about the statuettes which embellish Christmas cribs?

The clay figurines found in cribs are known locally as pasturi, derived from the Italian word for shepherd: ‘pastore’. These pasturinormally represent Baby Jesus, His parents Mary and Joseph, a number of shepherds and other villagers, as well as countless sheep and the ox and donkey that kept Jesus warm as He lay in the manger. An angel is often found kneeling over the stable where Jesus was born.

The traditional characters in a crib vary between different countries and their cultures. In Malta, we too have our own special pasturi. One of these is the popular għaġeb tal-presepju, often depicted with arms open wide. The word tistagħġebin the local language means to marvel. This character in the crib is, in fact, marvelling at the birth of Christ; he is in awe of what he is witnessing. Since the word can also mean to make a fuss, locals sometimes call an overly anxious person għaġeb tal-presepju in jest.

Other characters of note in Maltese cribs are the sleeping man, ir-rieqed, sadly oblivious of the momentous event happening nearby; the curious stooper, or xabbatur, a man peeking into the cave to catch a glimpse of the newborn baby Jesus; and the Three Kings, who slowly make their way across the crib in time for the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th.

You may buy a crib on order from local enthusiasts – or be sustainable and make your own!

There is a certain pride and dedication in constructing a tailor-made crib. The style and design is crucial to this craft, as are the proportions in the sizes of the pasturi and the symmetry within the crib itself. The landscapes and buildings are moulded and enhanced through the use of brown paper, cardboard, small rocks and twigs, and PVA glue mixed with plaster to keep it all together. Colour is then painted on once it is dry.

If you are creative enough, rummage through your recycling waste and make your very own eco-friendly crib for Christmas. You can use cardboard boxes covered with brown or colourful paper, carve it from wood, or even use ice-cream sticks. Decorate the scene with grass or twigs, straw, hay, sand, and other natural materials. Place the figurines around the crib, making sure the stable where the Holy Family is situated takes centre-stage. And don’t forget to add plenty of lights!

Whilst hoping you will all enjoy this beautiful tradition within your homes, Design & Decor would like to extend our best wishes to all our readers for the festive season!

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