The mechanical nativity in Prague
The humble figures in our family’s nativity scene remain among my most cherished childhood memories of snow-laden Christmases on the farm in southeastern Minnesota. Even today, setting up the nativity scene in our own home is one of my favorite ways to prepare for Christmas. While serving as missionaries in Europe and living in the Czech Republic, our family saw miniature nativity figures depicted in many fascinating ways. There were figures fashioned from every conceivable medium – wood, clay, tin, glass, wax, straw, paper, corn husks and even gingerbread figures arrayed for public viewing in Prague’s Church of St. Matthew, freshly baked and decorated each year.
Among the most unique was the moving wooden nativity scene of more than 2000 carved parts and figures created by the Czech folk carver Josef Probošt, and his assistants Josef Kapucián and Josef Friml. This “Christmas crib,” now more than one hundred years old, took more than forty years to carve and is considered a national cultural monument. Its figures move, powered by small electric motor. www.betlem.cz/en/
Tradition credits St. Francis of Assissi with introducing nativity scenes in 1223 when he filled a manger with hay, tied an ox and an ass near it, and gathered villagers to worship in front of it. Some say St. Francis conceived this innovation because people wanted to go on pilgrimage to Bethlehem but were prevented from doing so by the Turkish occupation of the Holy Land. Nativity scenes enabled people to go to Bethlehem without leaving their villages and towns. Later these scenes began to be miniaturized so families could take them into their own homes. Prague became one of the first places outside of Italy where these nativity scenes were introduced, and their creation subsequently became a Czech folk art.
As unique and fascinating as nativity scenes may be, they present us with something far more profound. Rather than simply giving people a virtual pilgrimage to Bethlehem, they proclaim that God is on a real pilgrimage among us. The one born in Bethlehem is called Emmanuel – God with us here and now!
May you experience God’s presence, love and blessing this Christmas and always!