By Jan Siegel
The Christmas season is a time of traditions. Whether they are the traditions of family or the Church, they are traditions that have kept the holiday alive for over 2,000 years.
The tradition of the Christmas tree is a European one that spread to the United States. In San Juan Capistrano, the tradition of the Christmas tree did not arrive until the late 19th century. The Nativity Scene, which is also a European tradition, was very popular in South and Latin America. The Spanish and the Mexicans who came to Alta California brought the tradition of the Nativity Scene with them. Today in San Juan Capistrano, there are families who display the Nativity Scene but do not put the baby Jesus in the crib until after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
The Missionaries who came to Alta California were Franciscans. And it was St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order, who staged the first Nativity Scene in 1223.
In the Middle Ages, most of the populace was illiterate. The Church services were in Latin, which almost no one understood. There had to be a way to attract local people to the Church. Miracle plays were created as not only a form of entertainment but as a way of telling the stories of the Bible to the illiterate masses.
St. Francis understood the importance of visual observations to attract the populace to the Church. He was able to get permission from Pope Honorius III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals, an ox and an ass, in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. It was to remind the people that Jesus was born for them and that He was born into a poor family like theirs. St. Francis was so emotional about the story that he could not say “Jesus” and instead referred to Him as the “babe of Bethlehem.” According to the earliest biographer of St. Francis, the hay used by St. Francis “miraculously” acquired the power to cure local cattle diseases and pestilences.
The popularity of the Nativity Scene grew with every passing decade and century, and the cast of characters also increased. The scenes were not always Biblically correct, but this is where tradition is born. Today, the three wise men and the shepherds are integral parts of any Nativity Scene. But nowhere in the Bible do shepherds and wise men appear together. Of the four gospels of the New Testament, only Luke and Mathew describe Jesus’ birth. Matthew mentions wise men, and Luke comments on shepherds. There is also no mention of any farm animals in the manger. But the Nativity Scene lives on. It is part of the tradition of Christmas.
During this holiday season, take a Moment In Time to enjoy your special family traditions. You can even decide to start a new tradition and hope that future generations will embrace it.
Wishing you all a very happy and healthy New Year.
Jan Siegel is a 28-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years and has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 18 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.