Tag Archives: crèche

The animals of Christmas

December 15, 2017



The Birth of Jesus and the
Adoration of the Shepherds – Shepherd’s Field Bethlehem, Israel

There are several animals that are sometimes included in the Nativity or manger scene used to portray the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

An ox. An ox alone is a symbol for Jesus. An ox is strong and powerful and able to carry an enormous burden, while Jesus is all-powerful and able to carry any burden. Jesus explained, “My yoke is easy and my burden light” (Mt 11:30). Also, an ox served as the largest, most imposing, and most expensive animal to be sacrificed on the altar in the temple as a sin offering, and Jesus is the pure and unblemished lamb that was sacrificed on the altar of the Cross as a sin offering for the redemption and salvation of the world.

An ass. An ass or a donkey was part of several key events in the life of Jesus. Many religious artists portray an ass as present at the time of Jesus’ birth. Baby Jesus and Mary probably sat on an ass on their flight to Egypt (see Mt 2:14,21). Jesus rode astride an ass as he made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Mt 21:2,5,7; Jn 12:14). An ass represents humility, patience, peace, and service.

An ox and an ass together. An ox and ass are often displayed together in Nativity or crib scenes because of a verse in the Hebrew Scriptures: “An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger” (Is 1:3). There is a connection between this text and the birth of Jesus because the words “owner,” “master,” and “manger” in the verse from the prophet Isaiah apply to Jesus. Jesus is the creator of all things (Col 1:16); he is the owner. When Jesus was born, he was laid in a manger (Lk 2:6,12,16). As the one who would take the throne of his father David, rule over the house of Jacob, and whose kingdom will never end (Lk 1:32,33), the child is the master.

The ox and the ass at Christmas. The ox and ass are not depicted in all Christmas scenes, but when they are, they are shown in the background, behind Jesus who is usually in the manger in the foreground, flanked by Mary and Joseph. The shepherds or the magi may also be depicted in the crib scene, always secondary to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and ahead of the ox and ass. The two animals are among the humblest and least of the animals, representative figures for all of the animal kingdom. They are shown watching and waiting, docilely and patiently, in admiration and joy over all that is happening before them.

A dog. Shepherds and dogs worked together to care for the sheep. The shepherd led the flock from the front, and the dog was responsible for the rear. The dog used barking and nipping to keep stragglers in contact with the flock, to prevent sheep from straying, and to seek and find any sheep that may have wondered off. When the shepherds went to see the newborn Jesus (Lk 2:15-19), they would have taken their dogs with them. A dog keeps watch at night and is a faithful friend to its owner, and on Christmas night, the dog kept watch over the manger and acted as a faithful friend to Jesus. A dog represents fidelity, loyalty, and watchfulness.

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Kitchy crèches revisited

December 22, 2015



A couple of kitchy crèches spontaneously appeared in our offices recently (something about a dare) and reminded me it’s been a while since this topic has been visited.

Here are the local offenders:


And the original blog I came across in 2011, whyismarko. He’s up to 62:

The 62 Worst and Weirdest Nativities (the 2015 revised list!)



From a very young age I have always loved Nativity scenes. I had my own as a child that featured small wood-carved painted figures that I set up and took down through Advents past. One can be found on display in my dining room year round and somewhere in storage is a classic crèche that has been in the family for years and is safely waiting for a slightly less rambunctious household in which to be displayed. Maybe next year.

The beauty of the Nativity story told in statuary was something that I didn’t think could be done wrong. And then I came across this blog…

27 worst nativity sets: the annual, growing list!

Truth be told, there is one in the collection that I kind of like (Hint – It’s not the one made of meat).


If you have pictures of beautiful crèches out there to offset these, please link them in the comments.

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Where did the Nativity scene come from?

December 22, 2011


If you’ve set up a Nativity scene in your home, maybe the “supporting characters” you’ve arranged in the stable are waiting for you to lay the Star of the show–the baby Jesus–in the manger on Christmas Eve. Whether it’s under your tree, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand or full of lights in your yard, a movable model of the Incarnation not only completes the Christmas decor, but offers a tangible means for reflecting on the source of our joy this season.

The number of Nativity scenes seems to be limited only by the imagination. As I started seeing the familiar figures, Mary Joseph, Jesus, the Wisemen … in different settings, I wondered about the origin of these scenes which are so much a part of our holy celebration.

Known as a creche in French or presepio in Italian, the Nativity scene represents a combination of passages from Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. Scripture says nothing about the shepherds, the Magi and the animals all gathered together at the same time with the Holy Family.

The first Nativity scene

But Christians began depicting the Nativity this way as early the 2nd century with frescos in the Roman catacombs.

In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi created the first living Nativity scene in a cave near Greccio, Italy, at midnight Mass in an effort to make Christmas more meaningful for the townspeople. The scene contained the manger and live animals but not the figure of Mary, Joseph or Jesus.

St. Bonaventure writes about the event in his biography of St. Francis:

Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was changed by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King, and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.

It is said that miracles occurred after St. Francis’ Nativity scene, including a vision of the Christ child in the manger and healing properties of the hay used in the scene.

The first stationary Nativity scene was crafted in marble about 65 years after St. Francis’ midnight scene. Others were constructed in wood, terracotta or stone. After the Middle Ages Nativity scenes could be found in most Catholic churches.

Many Nativity scene traditions

Different countries developed their own traditions. Small hand-painted terracotta figures called santons are popular in Provence, France. In southern Germany, Austria and northern Italy figurines are hand-cut in wood. Polish szopka incorporate a historical building into the scenes. The English had the most unusual custom of baking a mince pie in the shape of a manger to hold the Christ child until dinnertime when they would eat the pie.

Some traditions place Adam, Eve and the serpent; Noah and his animals or other biblical figures in the scene. Others depict events such as Mary washing diapers in the Jordan river, or a dove descending on the baby Jesus.

Whatever our own Nativity scenes look like, large or small, they remind us daily what the season is about–Christ who came as a baby to save us.

A great way to enter into Christmas is to view Father Jerry Dvorak’s collection of 275 creches displayed until Jan. 29 at the Church of St. Peter at 6730 Nicollet Ave. S. in Richfield. Viewing hours are 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday* and after all weekend Masses.

*St. Peter’s building won’t be open Dec. 23, 26, 30 and Jan. 2.

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