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Joy of Advent: Why Are the Christmas Tree and Nativity Scene Important?

It's time to put up the belen and the Christmas tree!

On the first Sunday of Advent, we enter the season that opens the liturgical year. This is a time that prepares us for Christmas, the much-awaited moment when the Christ Child comes to us on Earth. It is the moment when we need to, as Pope Francis said, “Look up and open our hearts in order to welcome Jesus.” 

In Europe, the start of Advent signals a very special time and “commitment” that has filled the lives of family members with joy for generations. In particular, the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8 is especially significant in Italy, as this marks the date when homes are abuzz with setting up the Christmas tree and the nativity scene.

Admittedly, the Christmas tree and the nativity scene have become a heartwarming tradition that involves the entire household, as it prepares one’s home in welcoming welcome no other than the Baby Jesus. (Read: Vatican to Unveil Christmas Tree, Nativity Scene on December 11)

Today, My Pope Philippines explores the origins of these Advent traditions and what makes a home prepared for the season.

Christmas Tree

(Left) Druids believed mistletoe had mystical powers and hang bunches in their homes to ward off evil spirits. (Right) Adherents to reformer Martin Luther credit him with the introduction of the Christmas tree tradition in 16th-century Germany.  (Photos from WilderUtopia)

Along with the nativity scene, which has a might evocative power, the tree has also become an emblem of the Advent season. But does everyone these days understand why it is related to Christmas? (Read: Three Ways to Celebrate the True Meaning of Christmas)

The tradition of the tree was inherited from Northern Europe. Originally, the evergreen stood for the celebration of the winter solstice, which heralds the return of the warmer season. For Catholics, the tree took on an even deeper meaning as Christ, who, like the tree that stands lush and green in the winter, is the ultimate symbol of everlasting life.

The adopting of this Northern European tradition seems only fitting considering the fact that the teachings of Catholicism include many central trees, like the Tree of Good and Evil or the Tree of Life.

Nativity Scene

The Vatican’s annual nativity scene for 2017, which Pope Francis visited on New Year’s Eve. (Photo from Stock image / Crux Now)

While the practice of trimming the Christmas tree seems to have taken the world by storm, setting up the nativity scene is something Italians still carry very close to their hearts— perhaps because the tradition began in Greccio, Italy. 

The belen, or the presepio, as it is called in Italian (derived from the Latin term for “manger”), was first created by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223, using human beings as living statues instead of figurines. From that Christmas long ago, the tradition has lived on. And the presepio is still a representation of what is written in the Gospels, and is therefore an encounter with the Holy Family and the shepherds brought to the presepio by the angel of the Lord.

After a while during the Epiphany, the figures of the Three Kings will be added to the setup. (Read: The Three Kings: Real or Fake News?)

Unfamiliar Characters

Photo from Pixabay

But aside from the basic characters in the presepio, there are others that have made an appearance in the nativity. Alberto Fininzio, president of the Italian Association of Friends of Presepio, reminds us of characters that we barely remember. 

“The tradition of the angel is somewhat lost: it should be placed in the nativity scene right after Baby Jesus, because this angel had to announce His birth,” says Alberto. (Read: Uplifting Lessons We Can Learn from Mary and Joseph on the First Christmas)

He also brings up another character that is usually left out nowadays: the Devil. “It used to be placed inside a ravine under the cave,” he explains, “as if the nativity would crush and defeat him… today we could place him among the angels, with his back turned, as if he were running away after understanding that he was defeated by Good.”

Another curious character Alberto brings up is the Shepherd of Astonishment. “This shepherd has his mouth open and arms raised toward the heavens greeting Baby Jesus.” He is an astonished and happy man, as each of us is, thanks to the miracle of Christmas, after more than 2,000 years.


Text by Enrico Casarini and Tata Mapa.

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