From the austere grotto to the colorful santon, between Catholic tradition and Christmas folklore, the nativity scene celebrates its 800th anniversary this year, with recurring controversies on secularism in France. The story dates back to 1223: Francis of Assisi, returning from a trip to the Holy Land, created a living nativity scene in a cave in the village of Greccio, in central Italy. Neither santons nor decorum: it is then a question of gathering the villagers around a manger "cripia" in Latin surrounded by an ox and a donkey.
From a religious point of view, the nativity scene in Greccio "is part of a context in which we are rediscovering that it is smallness that is divine, not royalty," explains Franciscan Franciscan François Comparat, a former professor of theology. In fact, representations of the Nativity and the Theatrical Mysteries existed before. "There is a partly symbolic dimension to these 800 years," Isabelle Saint-Martin, a historian at the École pratique des hautes études, told AFP.
"It was especially in the seventeenth century that devotion to the Child Jesus developed, which went hand in hand with interest in the nativity scene. To promote it, we highlight the one in Greccio," she adds. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the development of nativity scenes with large figurines, especially Neapolitan ones. Under the Ancien Régime, small nativity scenes also appeared in display boxes with fixed figurines made of spun glass, wax or papier-mâché.
It was at the end of the eighteenth century that the family nativity scene appeared, with small mobile figurines, whose "development paralleled that of children's toys, which took off in the nineteenth century," explains the historian. The Revolution may also have been "a favourable factor", as the limitation of worship encouraged the return of nativity scenes to the private sphere. Shortly afterwards, in the very first years of the nineteenth century, "we see the arrival of santon manufacturers on the Provençal markets. Small family nurseries are becoming more popular," she adds.
Read alsoControversy over Christmas decorations: "Nantes loves Christmas" tries to reassure Mayor Johanna Rolland
In Naples as in Provence, it is possible to see a whole host of characters such as a fisherman, a spinner or a blacksmith, far removed from the Gospel accounts. In recent years, Santa Claus, Bernard Tapie or Yellow Vests santons have been seen. "In this new world inaugurated by Jesus, there is room for all that is human," Pope Francis explained in 2019 in an apostolic letter in which he invited us to reconnect with a spiritual reading of the nativity scene.
Tradition dictates that the nativity scene, installed at the beginning of December, welcomes the character of Jesus on Christmas Eve, then the Three Wise Men on the day of the Epiphany. Although the nativity scene did not take hold among Protestants, in Catholic countries it developed with local specificities.
Since 2018, the Vatican has been exhibiting around a hundred nativity scenes from around the world in the run-up to Christmas. The town of Greccio has been celebrating its "800th anniversary" since the beginning of the year. In France various initiatives are planned: a living nativity scene at Bourges Cathedral or the nativity scene festival in Grenoble. The number of practicing Catholics continues to decline in France but the tradition continues: according to an Ifop poll for La Vie, more than two out of five French people (41%) still set up a crèche (and even 50% of families with children). This "resilience" can be explained "by its traditional and cultural dimension", explains Ifop.
But in a country governed by the principle of secularism, the issue regularly stirs controversy when an elected official, usually from the right or far right, installs a nativity scene, a symbol of Christmas more religiously marked than the tree. This is the case again this year in Perpignan and Béziers, for example. In 2016, the Council of State authorised the installation of nativity scenes in public buildings, but under strict conditions: no proselytism, cultural or festive events, on the occasion of Christmas.
Last year, about 20 senators from Les Républicains tabled a bill aimed at "preserving nurseries".