Baby Jesus doll stolen from Nativity scene

The doll symbolizing the Baby Jesus has been stolen by suspected anarchists from the manger in Thessaloniki’s main square, police said yesterday.

A previously unknown group calling itself “The Mothers of Aristotelous Square” claimed it was behind the stunt and demanded the release of two activists arrested earlier this year when the European Social Forum was held in Athens.

This is the third time since 1993 that the Baby Jesus has been stolen from the Nativity scene, which is set up next to the Christmas tree in Aristotelous Square.

“No matter how many times they take the doll… nothing can remove Christ and the Christmas spirit from our hearts,” said Thessaloniki’s Deputy Mayor Vassilis Gakis.

Police said that the doll was stolen while the security guard was on a break.

Taking the Christ out of Christmas?

The missing Nativity scene from Nicosia’s Eleftheria Square aroused my suspicions that the War on Christmas might finally have reached our gloriously un-politically correct utopian backwater.

I began to survey the decorations and shop windows around town looking for signs that Christmas was being neutralised. Everything seemed normal, and the huge ‘Merry Christmas’ lights across the square were intact, but I was curious about the manger.

Nicos Karanikis from the Nicosia Municipality, however, assured us that the nativity scene still existed, but had been moved to the moat due to lack of space in the square. He was adamant the move had nothing to do with political correctness.

“We don’t suffer from that sickness yet,” he said.

Next it was time to check out the Christmas cards that were coming in, and to see what organisations and companies had decided to take Christ out of Christmas this year.

The card from the EU delegation was the least Christmassy. Depicting the Treaty of Rome anniversary message “Together since 1957”, the card simply said “Season’s Greetings” in all of the EU languages. “We must not imply anything religious on cards,” said a spokesman at the delegation. “There is a certain policy not to offend or show any religious leanings.”

A similar message came from the UN, understandable given its mandate. “The UN is non-denominational when it comes to greetings, which is related to the partiality of the UN,” said spokesman Brian Kelly.

Asked if there was any policy advice to local missions given that staff are usually of mixed nationalities and faiths, Kelly said he had not seen any nativity scenes in UNFICYP offices, but he had seen lots of Christmas trees. “A lot of Turkish Cypriots have a UK background so Christmas for them is part of the calendar,” he said.

The US Embassy said it didn’t have a secular policy as such, but had nevertheless always sent out cards saying “Happy New Year”. Staff are allowed to have decorations in their offices, a spokesman said.

The British bases, which also have mixed staff, say they are a little behind the UK when it comes to political correctness. “We still say Christmas greetings. We don’t try to be PC, but we respect the multicultural society in which we live,” said spokesman Dennis Barnes. He said the Turkish Cypriots who work in Dhekelia don’t have any problems and make no demands. “It’s still little England here where Christmas is still Christmas,” Barnes added.

Similarly, the British High Commission was not playing the PC card… literally, as a card depicting the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus arrived. “There is no policy,” said spokesman Nigel Boud. “Our Foreign Office cards are overtly Christian and we don’t have any problems. We have non-Christian staff at the High Commission and their religious festivals are marked and celebrated and respected. I think the whole thing is exaggerated and the incidents are isolated incidents. Christmas is a Christian festival. It should be possible to celebrate it without anyone getting offended.”

The Israeli Embassy agreed. A spokesman said the embassy had held a small ceremony earlier in the week to celebrate Hanukkah. “Jewish people do not take exception to Christmas, although we are careful with the greeting cards we send since we don’t have Christmas,” said the spokesman. “The cards focus on happy new year or season’s greetings but we are not ultra sensitive. Lots of people send us Christmas cards and we are not offended. You have to be practical as well. Some people don’t know about Hanukkah. Sometimes the EU or US or the UK go too far with political correctness at this time of the year. They’ve taken the spirit out of Christmas.”

But one multinational company on the island said staff were told to be careful when choosing what cards to send locally. One option they were offered by the company “was not remotely related to Christmas” an employee said.

Sociologist Antonis Rafits said when people start being offended “we get into the realm of religious prejudice, which is not a good idea”. “Minority groups have the right not to celebrate but they should not be allowed to go against those who believe in Christmas,” he added.

Raftis said he did not agree with any policy that prevented a person of one faith from displaying their religious symbols in order to appease another. “But I don’t think this is too much of an issue in Cyprus,” he said.

The Reverend Steve Collis from St Paul’s Anglican Church said that in some instances Christians were trying hard to be reasonable when those from other faiths became offended. “A lot of people are looking to appease Islamic nations. I feel personally it’s gone too far because I have had Muslim friends sending me Christmas cards. They think we are being unwise. I feel very strongly we should show concern for others but there are some others that are trying to take it all away and neutralise Christmas,” he said.

The Reverend Collis said that instead of trying to take Christ out of Christmas, other faiths should be invited to join in. “What is going on is more of a political concern. Instead of taking Christ out of Christmas they should take politics out of Christmas,” he said.

The Image of Christmas > The Nativity Represented in Art

Posted On December 16, 2006

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It is fitting to start this account with this image, as in many ways, it shows the start of the Christmas story. It was painted by Fra Angelico (c.1390-1455) a Dominican friar, probably for the Dominican house of San Domenico in Fiesole, near Florence. It was bought in 1612 for the Duke of Lerma’s chapel in the Dominican church of Valladolid in Spain where it remained until its acquisition by the Prado.

Angelico shows us not only the moment of Christ’s Incarnation in the Annunciation scene, but the very reason for it, by painting the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden in the left background. An angel ushers Adam and Eve out of a lush garden, rendered almost like a tapestry. The couple are wearing clothes so the moment of shame – linked to consciousness of their nakedness and sin – has happened.

However, the most important part of the painting is clearly the foreground, where Gabriel announces to Mary that she will conceive and bear a child and she replies with humility ‘behold the handmaid of the Lord’. Mary’s acceptance of her role in the salvation of mankind, and Christ’s taking on her human flesh is crucial in the history of redemption and also in Eucharistic terms. The body of Christ, consumed in the Eucharist, is a human, fleshly body which was sacrificed on the cross for the sins of mankind. This difficult doctrinal message had to be rendered pictorially in a clear and readable fashion.

Angelico places the Annunciation in an architectural setting of a Renaissance loggia, very similar to the loggie and cloisters of his own convent of San Marco, designed by his contemporary, Michelozzo (1396-1472). A shaft of golden light falls from the left bearing the dove of the Holy Spirit. Mary is seated with her hands crossed over her chest, an open book on her knee. The open book symbolises the Word, which is being made flesh at that moment, and also recalls the prophecy of Isaiah. Sculpted in the spandrels of the loggia is the head of God the Father, so all three persons of the Trinity are present: God the Father in the sculpted relief, the dove of the Holy Spirit in the shaft of light, and Christ, by implication, in the womb of the Virgin.

The Nativity story is told in the Gospel of St. Luke (2:1-7). Joseph is called to Bethlehem to take part in a census. Mary accompanies him: ‘She was pregnant, and while they were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to have her baby. She gave birth to her first son, wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger – there was no room for them to stay in the inn. ‘Luke then goes on to describe how angels announce the birth of Christ to nearby shepherds. We can see, however, that the actual account of the birth is very sketchy, and it was fleshed out by centuries of Christian tradition and by apocryphal gospels – i.e. those gospels which were not accepted as authentic by the Church.

Much of the detail of the Christmas tradition comes in fact from the apocryphal gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew, a text which appeared in the west in the 8th and 9th centuries. Some versions were preceded by letters which purported to come from Saint Jerome, testifying to the truth of its contents and claiming responsibility for its tranlsation. Some copies of the text attributed it to James, son of Joseph.  In this text, an angel tells Mary that parturition is near and orders her to enter into an underground cave.

At the entrance of Mary the grotto begins to glow like the sun. The Pseudo-Matthew then tells of how the Virgin gives birth to a son in the grotto, and angels circle him as soon as he his born, singing ‘Gloria to God in the highest and peace on earth to men of goodwill.’ A while before, Joseph had departed in search of midwives, but when he returns Mary has already given birth. Preachers often stressed how the Virgin was exempt from the pains of childbirth suffered by other women as a consequence of the sin of Eve and did not need the attentions of midwives. The midwives he brings are named Zelomi and Salomè but they stand outside the grotto afraid to enter because of the light. Zelomi enters and touches the virgin and exclaims on her virginity: ‘A Virgin has conceived, a Virgin has given birth, a Virgin remains. Salomè, outside, disbelieves and the story of the withered hand is told [Editor’s note: Testing Mary’s virginity with her finger, Salomè’s hand withered].

The shepherds are told of the birth by an angel, and an enormous star appears over the grotto. The third day after the birth, Mary leaves the grotto and enters a stable, she puts the child in a manger and the ox and the ass adore him. The author clearly added these elements, not found in scripture, to show that the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled. These details became absorbed in popular medieval texts like the thirteenth-century Golden Legend, written by the Dominican friar James of Varazze (Jacobus de Voragine), often described as a ‘medieval bestseller’.

This is from an excellent source, which I recommend to visit and view some great pictures. Please visit >

The origin of the Nativity Scene

Posted On December 2, 2006

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The Christmas Nativity Scene is a retelling of the account in the bible of Jesus’ birth as found in the Gospel of Luke and Matthew.

When Mary and Joseph were unable to find room at an inn, they took shelter in a barn for the evening. After giving birth, Mary and Joseph were visited by Shepherds, and Wise Men from the East. Those figures, plus the livestock from the barn, are usually found in a Nativity Set.

The tradition of a displaying a nativity scene, or nativity crèche (crèche meaning manger), started in Germany in the 1600s. There is record of a live nativity scene that dates all the way back to the 13th Century in Italy.

St. Charles presents a live Nativity based on a Spanish tradition known as Los Posadas every year that is attended by over 8,000 people.

Sources for the History of the Nativity Scene >

The Wise Men and just how many they were

Tradition at time calls for two or more Wise Men.

The established number nowadays is the three that were first mentioned by Pope Leon in the fifth century.

He determined this number from the three gifts given to baby Jesus: the gold, the incense and the smyrna.

The Wise Men are: Balthazar, Jasper, and Mahler. In their depictions Jasper is the old man with the beard and is almost always first to present his gift. Mahler is always young and without a beard and comes second, while Balthazar is portrayed as always very dark-skinned or black and comes third in line. 

Once in Royal David’s city?

Posted On October 17, 2006

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They’re on every street corner and for sale everywhere you can buy a Christmas tree from, but what are the origins of nativity tableaux?

It is not possible to talk about Christmas without mentioning the crib, a representation of the birth of Christ that dates back to the middle ages, where it flourished particularly in Naples in the late 17th century. However, its origins can be traced as back even further to the centuries before Christ, to the Hellenistic and Roman pagan tradition of producing clay representations of gods and goddesses to be kept in homes (called Lari, meaning the gods who protected the household).

The responsibility for creating the first nativity scene has been accredited to Saint Francis of Assisi, who in 1223 in Greccio (a small town near Perugia and the reason why in French the crib is called creche) celebrated Christmas welcoming the shepherds and cuddling a baby. Since then, the idea of creating three dimensional figures representing the birth of Christ continued, but it was largely confined to churches. The most famous 3D nativity is a marble one created by Arnolfo di Cambio (dated 1289) which is still kept in the Sistine Chapel. But this is an artistic expression, far from the popular art that followed some centuries afterwards.

In the 16th century, Saint Gaetano of Thiene staged the first tableau with figures dressed in a contemporary way. This is believed to be the first modern ‘crib’. After this artisans started to develop wooden figures with supple head and joints. Since then, the progress was steady, leading to smaller (40cm instead of life size) figures were created with a combination of different materials (wood, wax for the face, fabric for the clothes, etc.).

At the beginning of the 17th century, the shepherd as we know him today was born: clay for the head, iron wire for the body, hemp for the clothes. In this period the nativity crib became a mania: the scenes, as well as the characters, grew more and more sophisticated; with some of the most reputed artists creating their own nativity; every family, from the nobles to the common people, each according to his wealth, had their own ‘crib’ at home. Common themes were established: the three kings (the so-called Magi), the shepherds, the women (often differentiated by race), each of them with its own characteristics and expressions (astonishment, anger, ecstasy, devotion).

Christ as a baby was not the only familiar figure, each tableau also had a series of symbols: Benino, the young sleeping shepherd is the new year, the life that renews; the shepherd leading the flock is the leader of the souls of the dead; the host (innkeeper) symbolises temptation; the water, always present, is the symbol of purity; the three Magi represented the three human races; the gypsy holding a baby represented the Madonna exiled in a foreign land and so on, a real mine of symbolism.

The ‘crib’ then became a cultural phenomenon reflecting the real life of the city of Naples, which was one of the most important of the time (the famous poet Wolfgang Ghoete used to say “Napoli? That’s Paris, all the other cities are small Lion”), a crossbreed of Christian and pagan religion.

In the splendid and refined Naples ruled by the Borboni King, during the 17th and 18th centuries, many different forms of art flourished and the high level reached by the nativity can only be understood in this wider perspective: those were the years Caravaggio was producing his masterpieces, the famous Posillipo School, reputed for the stunning Neapolitan landscapes influenced by some of the greatest European painters of the time who used to live in Naples for a while (Turner, Courot and Bonington) was reaching its height (an exhibition of a great student of this school, Giacinto Gigante, was held in Cyprus in 2001 at Leventis Museum).

At the same time, the Reggia di Caserta, an amazing architectural masterpiece, 45,000m² with 1,200 rooms, 1,790 windows, 34 great staircases, walls with diversified thickness to assure a natural air conditioning, was built upon a Vanvitelli design. The Saint Carlo Theatre, the oldest European theatre still in use, was inaugurated in 1737, and the most famous artists, Metastasio, Bach, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni, performed there. In the 18th century Naples became the European capital of music, giving birth to a Neapolitan school with masters such as Paisiello and Cimarosa and, later on, to the Young school of Opera Romantica by Leoncavallo, Giordano, Cilea and Alfano.

More recently, during the 19th and 20th centuries, with the increasing prominence of the middle classes, nativities started to show characters intent on their work, losing some of the previous symbolism but keeping a strong tie to real life. Just think about one of the most well known comedies by Eduardo De Filippo, a great Neapolitan author, Natale in casa Cupiello (Christmas in Cupiello’s house), where the nativity occupies the initial scene and gives the start to the play, with the father asking his lazy son if he liked it or not. In his negative answer are the origins of the story of the family, an incredibly true fresco of family life in a popular Neapolitan household.