The 8th of December is a special day for me. On the island of Malta where I grew up it’s a feast day, the Immaculate Conception, which meant another school holiday. In our house it was the unofficial start of Christmas. My mum would bring out four or five shoeboxes brimming with decorations while my father went up the ladder to stretch a cat’s cradle of string across the living room ceiling. Over the next few days, he’d festoon them with paper streamers and slightly moth-eaten chinese lanterns in vivid colour.
We’d have a little Christmas tree too, and an advent calendar. But pride of place was always given to a nativity scene, in Maltese called a crib or presepju. Kids my age where crazy about presepji and the tradition continues today, with many crib societies organising exhibitions, competitions and even crib making classes to enthuse new generations. Most cribs in the home are small affairs, with a balsa wood stable or a papier mache crib for the holy family and perhaps a painted backdrop showing the outlines of Bethlehem, bathed in starlight.
Community cribs can be grand little affairs, with miniature landscapes boasting elaborate buildings, farms, streams with running water, fields sew with real corn, and windmills with turning sails, although I think there were no windmills in Palestine in the time of Jesus. Thinking about it, our cribs looked more Southern Mediterrenean than Middle Eastern. One common feature in many of them is a bakery where a baker is turning out ciabbatta loaves rather than the flat breads more commonly found in the Eastern Mediterrenean. But then I think that’s the beauty of Christian iconography. People tend to infuse it with their own culture, making it relevant to their lives.
The cribs are populated with figurines called pasturi. In my day, cheap ones were made out of clay and cost a penny, although I preferred the more expensive ones cast in gesso and painted in vivid colours. Even with several coats of paint, they remained fragile and the gesso was replaced with hard-cast resin in the 1970s. Many pasturi are collectors items and can cost quite a lot, especially ones imported from Sicily where making these figurines is considered an artform
Central to every crib is the holy family: a small Jesus in a manger, his mother, usually shown kneeling, and his father Joseph, always dressed in sombre brown. There are also a cow, a donkey, geese, ducks, chickens and a flock of sheep, its size depending on the amount of pocket money you wheedled out of your parents before Christmas. Shepherds and angels are, of course, obligatory and there is also a cast of stock figures as familiar as pantomime characters. The woman returning from the well, usually carrying a jug on her shoulder! The shepherd who slept through the angels’ announcement! The baker checking on his loaves! In Spain I even came across a character called ‘el kakkaj’, a man having a dump. In Malta there is always ‘l-ghageb‘, a man holding his hands up, his mouth wide open. He is dazzled by the angels. The word is used as a derogatory term for someone in the habit of staring.
Three wise men, sometimes with courtiers leading camels, are placed at the edge of the crib. They’re moved a little closer to the holy family every day so that, by January sixth, they’re presenting their gifts to Jesus. But we don’t want to talk about that now. The 6th of January is not only the day of the kings but also the official end of Christmas when the decorations have to be put away for nearly another year.
Today, nativity scenes are popular everywhere. I came across a knitted one at Simply Books in Bramhall, Stockport yesterday. There was even a book to go with it, which showed you how to knit your own holy family, animals and shepherds. Knitting and nativity scenes! My mum would approve!
Other Christmas posts:
Great Joy – Kate DiCamillo