Amid holiday bustle, Nativity scenes share Christmas’ true meaning

November 24, 2015

HOUSTON — Although the fall colors have yet to truly settle in, shopping centers and store fronts across the city are decked out in holiday decorations reminding us that Christmas is just around the corner.

These signs of the coming Christmas holiday, often colorful lights, massive Christmas trees and larger-than-life twinkling gift boxes, are many times absent of the original Christmas story: the Nativity scene of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and the Christ Child swaddled and lying in a manger.

At an early morning Mass Nov. 16, Pope Francis called the world to not give into the pressure to conform to the "norm" but to keep "Christ" in Christmas, despite all the wordliness that surrounds the Church. His encouragement echoes his words about the Child Jesus in a homily at Bethlehem's Manger Square in 2014.

"The Child Jesus, born in Bethlehem, is the sign given by God to those who awaited salvation, and he remains forever the sign of God's tenderness and presence in our world," he said. 
Tradition holds it that St. Francis of Assisi made the first Christmas Nativity scene for Christmas Eve in 1223 as a tool of evangelization. Now, communities and cultures continue this Christmas tradition. 
Found in many Catholic churches and the homes of the faithful, Nativity scenes portray the Gospel of St. Luke's account of Jesus's birth. While some are more elaborate than others and feature a herd of farm animals, each Nativity scene recalls the Holy Family and the humble birth of Jesus.

At St. Michael Catholic Church in the Galleria, a large Nativity scene takes up an entire portion of the church narthex for nearly a month, said Jennifer Gonzalez, director of social justice at the Houston parish. 
"All the parishioners look forward to it and want to take family photos by it," Gonzalez said. "I feel Nativity scenes draw the family together, which is exactly what was happening when St. Joseph, the Virgin Mary and Jesus first became a family." 

 A Nativity scene was part of her childhood, she said.

"My parents have a bulky wooden Nativity scene that was a perfect size for my sisters and me to play with," Gonzalez said. "We would pick up the wooden animals and make noises with them as they came to see baby Jesus. It was a time of joy and community for me and my sisters," since there was never any fighting among them, only child's play.

Annually during the Advent season at the Vatican in front of St. Peter's Basilica, the pope unveils a hand-carved Nativity scene. In 2013, the sculptures donated by artisans from Naples, which have included the traditional figures of the Holy Family, shepherds, the Magi from a distance, also features figures representing the poorest of the poor, as seen by an impoverished mother bringing her son to see the Christ Child. This was inspired by Pope Francis' message to reach out to those on the margins.

Last year the Nativity scene was provided by delegations from the Italian provinces of Verona and Catanzaro. At the unveiling, Pope Francis said the Nativity evokes festive symbols dear to Christian families, recalling the mystery of the incarnation, "the only begotten Son of God, made flesh in order to save us, and the light that Jesus has brought to the world through His birth."

"But the creche and the tree touch the hearts of all, as they speak of fraternity, intimacy and friendship, calling to people of our time to rediscover the beauty of simplicity, sharing and solidarity," he said. "They are an invitation to unity, harmony and peace; an invitation to make room, in our personal and social life, for God, who does not come with arrogance, imposing His power, but instead offers His omnipotent love through the fragile figure of a Child. The creche and the tree therefore bring a message of light, hope and love."

- CNS and VIS contributed to this report