Catholic culture and the Nativity scene at the Vatican

ROME – Just as with department store windows in the United States, reminders in Rome that Christmas is coming seem to start popping up earlier and earlier ever year. Of course Italians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but it’s worth pointing out that Turkey Day just happened and it feels like Christmas season is here.

This week, for instance, the Christmas tree to be displayed in St. Peter’s Square arrived at the Vatican.

It’s an 82-foot-tall fir tree, cut down on Nov. 13 in a forest outside the small town of Scurelle (13,000 souls) in the northern Italian province of Trento. The Italian army moved it in a helicopter to a staging location, where it was put on a truck for the ride to Rome.

It’s already been put up in the square, which is the traditional annual signal that the holidays are upon us.

Also this week, the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo launched its 41st annual exhibit of 11 nativity scenes from around the world, while Vatican personnel are working feverishly to prepare the massive nativity scene that each year dominates St. Peter’s Square.

During a presentation of the exhibit last Thursday, local schoolchildren performed a “living” nativity scene, while Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, now the head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, was on hand.

(In a touching footnote, the theme of the living scene was “In Amatrice, the bell tower strikes the Holy Night,” a tribute to a small Italian town famed for its pasta sauce that was wiped out by an August 24 earthquake.)

The Roman Academy of Arts also held an event for children aged 4 to 11 on “the nativity scene as play,” teaching kids how to make their own.

All this offers a reminder of just how central the iconography of Christmas, especially the nativity scene, is to Catholic culture. Herewith, then, three things one can glean about Catholicism from observing the special place that the nativity scene occupies in the Vatican, and in Catholic hearts. Continue reading

  • John L. Allen Jr. is the editor of Crux, specialising in coverage of the Vatican and the Catholic Church.
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