Staging Incarnation:
Material Culture and the Traveling Manger Scene
Donald Heinz

An excerpt from Christmas: Festival of Incarnation by Donald Heinz Copyright © 2010 Fortress Press.
Reproduced by permission of Augsburg Fortress Publishers.


Most famously, Saint Francis in 1223 assembled a live manger scene in a humble outdoor setting at the edge of his village. He consecrated this natural site by preaching a sermon and holding a Christmas Mass. His first biographer, Thomas of Celano, tells how Francis was overcome with tenderness and filled with joy, bleating like a sheep. Saint Bonaventure recounted the original story: three years before his death Francis wanted to prepare a special celebration of the birth of Jesus, received authorization from the pope, made ready a manger, and had hay, ox, and ass brought to the place. His followers and villagers gathered that night, and the woods rang with their songs. Francis stood at the manger bathed in tears, chanted the Gospel, and then preached about the child of Bethlehem. A knight in the congregation saw, in a vision, that a little child came into the manger and roused from sleep at Francis’s words. Miracles followed and then a distinctive Franciscan piety.

In the early centuries of Christianity, the Christ Child of Byzantine art had sat rigidly upright like a miniature adult ruler, looking regally at his subjects. More than anyone else, Saint Francis shifted attention from the adoration of the Christ Child in rich and elaborate tableaux to his actual humble birth, with hints of suffering and death to come. This had an enormous influence on the teaching and piety of the church and on European art. No doubt Francis saw the child through the eyes of his own vow of absolute poverty. His homely manger scene was a far cry from, and an implicit critique of, the splendor of the Roman church. Leaving the rich trappings of a privileged life behind, he had set out to preach repentance and the imitation of Christ. Soon many followed him into a life of apostolic poverty. In arranging for that unique Christmas Eve Mass of 1223, Francis wrote to his patron, the mayor of Greccio: “I would like to represent the birth of the Child just as it took place at Bethlehem, so that men should see with their own eyes the hardships He suffered as an infant, how He was laid on hay in a manger with the ox and the ass standing by.”

Franciscan street theater brought the mystical theology of the monks to the common people. It connected the crib to the sacrifice of the Mass and made the baby the one who suffers. This was the Franciscan approach: As God, who is love, loved and redeemed us in his dying, we, too, must learn to love, but we are blinded by sin. Devotees will aspire to a more human love if they are drawn to this little helpless infant. Here at this manger and in the Eucharist that follows it, love is reborn in the human heart. God, in this baby, is depending on us. The exalted theology of the Incarnation becomes comprehensible to everyone. As God descended into the human vernacular at Bethlehem, now Christian art and piety take the majesty of Incarnation theology to the eye-level of peasants on their knees at the crib. God has become a baby. Christ is re-humanized. Christ, in that child, is God’s special gift to the poor. Christmas is the amazing day when God first sucked on a human breast, and Francis called it the celebration of celebrations. God makes himself a vulnerable baby who requires the affection, care, and protection of human beings. The next centuries saw a flood of religious literature that emphasized the human nature of Christ, his feelings and his physical pain. God had become approachable and sympathetic again in the face of doctrinal efforts to lift him high. God is a baby we are admonished to rock or to pick up.

The Franciscan crib traditions would make Christmas democratic and expand incarnational piety to encompass all sorts of people. Everyone was invited in, not just the ancient shepherds and wise men or contemporary churchmen. Still today, every Christmas Eve the people of Greccio relive the moment when Francis set up his crib among them. A costumed procession makes its way by torchlight from the town square to a Franciscan sanctuary with a hallowed grotto. On a mountainside, because the grotto is too small to accommodate everyone, there is a pageant with actors and living ox and ass. The sets are made at Cincitta, Italy’s film production center in Rome, and many hundreds come to see.


In the fourteenth century, Margaretha Ebner, a Dominican nun, received a cradle with a baby-like doll as she was making her religious vows. The gift made a huge impression on her and inspired dreams; in one she is awakened by the child playing in his cradle, picks him up, kisses him, and suckles him at her breast. Small wooden cradles, a few still in existence from the fifteenth century, focused a particular kind of devotion. In the Netherlands noblewomen entering convents were commonly presented with a cradle that could hold a figure of a child, but more often they were elaborately carved and gilded miniatures. (If cradle-rocking focused on Christ’s humanity, a splendidly ornate cradle might emphasize his divinity.) A devotional handbook of the period has meditation and prayer, personified, tucking the baby into bed and plumping his pillow: “One now gathers up the sweet little Child Jesus and lifts Him from His crib. As Jesus Himself said, one must lift up the Son of Man so that all those who believe in Him do not perish, but may have eternal life.” Nuns would sew clothes for baby Jesus dolls and rock the cradle at Christmas. But in Florence, the ever vigilant Savonarola accused nuns of treating their infant dolls like idols.

Carols provided musical accompaniment. In German lands worshipers would rock the baby’s cradle and sing lullabies, a practice adopted from nunneries. In churches, the cradle would stand before the altar, with a brightly colored Christ-child visible within, and the priest—and eventually enthusiastic parishioners—would rock the cradle in time with the music of a cradle song:

Come, angels, come from heaven, appear!
Eia, eia, susani, susani, susani (hush; sleep, child)
Come sing, come pipe, come trumpet here!
Alleluia, alleluia, et in excelsis Gloria.

With softest touch let lutes reply
To soothe the Child with lullaby.

Some churches had two cradles, one for the priest to rock and another in the midst of the congregation, hung about with bells, for the children to rock. Carol-singers also carried cradles through the streets, props for their songs. In Provence, Christmas celebrations included making model villages, complete with crib and vividly characterized villagers, and worshipers brought torches to light the way, as in the carol:

Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella.
Bring a torch to his manger bed.
This is Jesus, good hope of the village, Christ is born, hear Mary’s warning
Hush, hush, softly sleeps the child.

The manger scene did not disappear with the coming of Protestantism. For his children, Luther wrote “From heaven above to earth I come.” As they gathered at home, they sang these verses:

These are the things which you will see
To let you know that it is he:
In manger-bed, in swaddling clothes
The child who all the earth upholds.
Look, look, dear friends, look over there!
 What lies within that manger bare?
Who is that lovely little one?
The baby Jesus, God’s dear Son.

O Lord, you have created all!
How did you come to be so small,
To sweetly sleep in manger-bed
Where lowing cattle lately fed?

Kneeling at the manger is meant to induce wonder at the juxtaposition of heaven and earth, power and vulnerability, grace and nature, God and a baby. An aria in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio acknowledges how the little baby, surrounded by Herod’s raging, could with a wave of his hand have called for heavenly reinforcements, but did not. Luther’s hymn for Christmas Day proclaimed:

A manger choosing for a throne
While worlds on worlds are yours alone.

Francis had set in motion an artistic enterprise in which craftsmen would produce replicas of every village role, from butcher to housewife to playing children, and every village scene, and set them into the holy context of the original manger. In the enchanting Catholic imagination, all life was sacralized. Common people were brought on stage. Like the more recent Dickens villages, manger scenes feature a colorful array of people from everyday life. These are pious, or casual, self-insertions into the orbit of God’s presence. They are saying, presumably, “I too am in the picture.”

The manger anchors, localizes, rivets, materializes the Incarnation. Every imaginable kind of manger scene, from the humblest to the most grand, has emerged in the material culture of Christianity. The cities of Naples and Munich and the Metropolitan Museum in New York are contemporary repositories of this history. Bamberg, a city in Bavaria, stages each December the Krippenweg, along which lie more than thirty churches, museums, and public squares that display original crib scenes. The walk begins in the cathedral at the altar to Mary by the wood sculptor Veit Stoss. Pilgrims and tourists from there follow a route that winds through the city, where manger scenes range from life-sized figures to delicate miniatures. Set against local landscapes with half-timbered Franconian houses, the scenes are populated by people in vernacular costumes. The city sponsors a Krippenbauschule that passes on this four-hundred-year sculpting tradition to the next generation.


The Manger Scene as Home Altar


In nineteenth-century Mexico, drenched in political turmoil as reform governments struggled to limit the public power of the Catholic Church, some religious practices moved from church to household, where religious images and even home altars symbolized alternative religious space. Tin retablo art flourished for home devotional use throughout the country. While it resembles religious images placed in church altars and paintings on wood, copper, and canvas by European and Mexican artists from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, it may also have pre-Columbian precedents in small household gods and clay votive figurines. This is the way Catholicism has produced an organic piety that plants Christian festivals in native soil. Domestic shrines and home altars reached their greatest importance during times of political turmoil. New legislation that sought to separate church and state reinforced the privatization of religion and paved the way for domestic devotions.


Arranged in highly personal ways, sacred objects facilitate human communication with God. These sacramentals are the Incarnation miniaturized in material culture. When sacred objects are displayed in place, a hallowed room becomes a church, a natural feature in the landscape a grotto, a bedroom chest a domestic altar. In fact, the first churches in Mexico were really constituted as enclosures around sacred objects brought by missionaries. The presence of God traffics back and forth between church and home or other sacred places. In the home different kinds of piety come to prevail, as one prays directly to Mary or the saints and expects a particular response not mediated by the clergy. Personal interactions are possible: one can dress sacred images, move them about, speak to them, change their appearance, and render them a homely part of daily life. This is a piety of seeing and touching, in which the sacred turns into a visual, tactile experience. It is a profound example of the indispensability of material culture in the rooting of Christianity in heart and mind, in the sacred spaces of public squares and private homes.

A sacred space within a Roman Catholic household may be compared with practices in Hinduism or Buddhism. A Hindu household shrine, tended daily by women, brings balance and welfare to the family and serves as a microcosm of Hinduism throughout the land. Home, family, clan, religion are all marked as a sacred cosmos, just as was also true in the Christian Middle Ages and sometimes today.

Protestants, too, became comfortable with manger scenes, even if few other religious images are displayed in their homes. Indeed, evangelical Protestantism took Christmas home to the family after it had proscribed Christmas as a churchly (and Catholic) festival. A later chapter displays the trees, decorations, cards, lights, and cooking that certainly fill every Protestant home with the material culture of Christmas. If not precisely the Catholic visual image of an invisible God, not quite an Orthodox icon, it is yet a staple of popular culture. What does the ubiquity of manger scenes imply? Do such objects of popular culture reflect the determined will of people to express themselves in folk art? Or is it mere mass market from a capitalism whose tentacles leave no marketing space unreached? It is not possible to tell, either for Catholics or Protestants, whether store-bought religious images and accoutrements are thoughtful extensions of an inner piety and symbols of a larger world of meanings—or relatively meaningless decorations created in Chinese factories.

Every child’s first manger scene is likely to be under the Christmas tree at home. In the 1950s, many American homes had a cardboard manger scene with a perforated star at the top that allowed a bulb from the tree lights to reach down and shine on the baby’s face. The finer the tree’s ornamentation, however, and the more abundant the presents, the more likely the manger scene will be concealed, so a special display table might be arranged. Manger scenes are cardboard and papier-mâché and wood and resin and glass and ceramic and fabric. Usually their figures are movable, so individuals can place shepherds and wise men and animals and the baby in the feeding trough just right, with Mary and Joseph satisfactorily hovering. They are cheap enough to be replaced every year or dear enough to become heirlooms for the next generation.


Protestantism and Material Culture


But when the manger scene morphs into home altar or household shrine, or even holy image, the Protestant sensibility becomes jittery. Until recently, the descendents of the sixteenth-century reformers John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli suspected that a deeply flawed human imagination would thwart the capacity of the image to reveal the divine to which it referred. They feared God would be reduced to something manipulable by humans and the divine essence confused with material form. For this theology, the original is in heaven, not on earth. But for Luther, heaven has emptied out onto earth. God is to be found in the manger, where Jesus is, not up in a heaven the soul tries foolishly to ascend by spiritual ladder. For Luther, and of course for Catholics, there is a visual and musical rhetoric of immediacy. The body, and embodiment, are not despised as organs of knowing. The image and the crib evoke an emotional relationship to God that can personalize belief and make a homely material culture central to the practice of devotion.

But for much of Protestantism, it is much harder to make the material body an instrument of grace. Instead, it is the unruly seat of the passions. For the early American Puritan Jonathan Edwards, authentic faith is signified by a selfless, disinterested contemplation of God’s beauty. The visual imagination cannot get to that important place because it is bound to deceive by inverting the proper relation of humanity to its sovereign God. There is disagreement on how extensively conservative Protestant homes feature religious or devotional images, though the use of bumper stickers and T-shirts and other signs of a religious counterculture is not in doubt. It seems to be the case that evangelical Protestantism, even considering its penchant for Holy Land trips and its fascination with the materiality of the nation of Israel, prefers memory and time to sacred space, because the latter is too easily idolatrous—or Catholic. God is perceived to occupy not sacred space but individual hearts and minds. Yet, evangelical Christianity produces an embodied friendship with Jesus in the life of Christian communities, and contemporary Protestant mega-churches seem to have caught up to Catholicism in a relatively benign view of popular religiosity. Prayer, song, testimony, and Bible study carry the sacred, even if the only true sacred space is heaven.

It is an interesting question whether Protestant suspicion of material culture as a location for incarnational theology helped abandon a churchly Christmas to the secular world, where, its divinity discarded, it became, by turn, a site of harmless domesticity or rapacious capitalism. The ironical Protestant contribution to the ­celebration of Christmas was to help empty holiday of any residual holy day. Iconoclastic Protestants know how to make a manger in their hearts, but find it difficult to believe in the sanctity of a manger made with hands. But like all people, they have a hunger for material culture, because they live an embodied existence. Their homes are filled with reindeer, their lawns with snowmen. They have emptied material culture of its theology, in order to make it secular and safe. But a Protestant world from which divine Incarnation is subtracted is very different from the one centuries of Christianity thought Christmas had enchanted. The word for it is secular.

Sometimes secular production values far exceeded those of the church, as when store windows display breathtakingly beautiful tableaux. Of course, they charmed shoppers and made it easier for those with holy day consciences to enjoy holiday. Even factory goods from China, when religious meanings are attached, form the texture of everyday life. Images help secure the world of belief and establish the boundaries of a genuine physical world in which believers find their existence. A manger scene may fill the angle of everyday vision in a way that makes a constructed environment congruent with mind and heart. Material culture makes room for the meanings one wants to hold on to. It “takes space” for religion to “take place.”

Since the Incarnation seems to challenge the religious imagination to widen a space for divine presence, material culture arises to fill that space and attract thoughtful attention or devotional reflection. The material culture of religion marks identity, just as national or ethnic or class symbols do. Any home altar, any prized manger scene, piles up material objects that bridge the divine and human worlds. Like family heirlooms, they stimulate the memory of things past and pass them on to new futures. Around them, a life of religious rituals and devotion can be constructed and maintained.


Donald Heinz is Professor of Religious Studies at California State University, Chico. Among his numerous works is The Last Passage: Recovering a Death of Our Own (Oxford University Press, 1999).

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