The crèche plays an important role in the Christmas traditions and is a profound symbol of Christianity. Christmas, the festival of the Birth of Christ, is irrevocably bound to many traditions all over the world. The nativity scene, lovingly set up beneath the Christmas tree, is invariably a fixed part of the season in most households.
Little is known about the early development of the crèche. Speculation remains on the actual date of origin. The first reference to the crèche, “Lord in the crib”, was made by St. John Crysostomos (345 A.D. – 407 A.D.). In later references, Dutch Augustine monk Johannes Mauburnus suggests a daily visit during the Christmas season to the “child in the crib” with the Holy Virgin and Holy Joseph. It is known that the first crèches were called “Bethlehems”.
It is said that it was St. Francis of Assisi who first had the idea, back in 1223, of setting up a plastic representation of the Christmas story. The passion for nativity scenes really blossomed during the Baroque. As a means of “illustrating belief”, lavish and valuable scenes were designed and made, under the guidance of Jesuits, and then set up in churches. In time, smaller but equally valuable examples were set up in townhouses and farms.
The first written evidence of a wood carved “presepe” (crèche) was in 1478, when a merchant from Naples commissioned the set. By the early 1500’s, crèche figures took form in every material imaginable, including wood, stone and cloth. They were both movable and unmovable, and hand painted or dressed in fabric.
In time, various European regions developed distinctive crèche styles. The mountainous Tyrol takes a prominent position in the crèche tradition, with the Gröden valley, the home of ANRI, known as the centre for producing hand carved crèche figures. It was there that the Bethlehem scene first reflected a native landscape, including snow-covered stables and huts.
It has been the theme for works of well-known artist who have created the wonderful models for ANRI.