Nativity Scene in St. Peter's Square Was John Paul II's Idea

An Artistic Endeavor That Requires Three Months of Work

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 18, 2003 ( Pilgrims and TV audiences worldwide know about the outsized Nativity scene displayed in St. Peter’s Square each Christmas.

But not all of them know that it was a novelty brought to the Vatican by none other than John Paul II.

Noticing the absence of Christmas decorations in the area enclosed by the Bernini colonnade, in 1982 the Pope suggested that the mystery that occurred in Bethlehem be represented in the area, in keeping with the Nativity spirit realized by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223.

Now, 20 people work for three months every year to design and build the Vatican’s Nativity ensemble. Various plans are proposed to the Vatican’s technical services, including architects and engineers. An ad hoc commission is set up to carry out the selected design.

There are endless details to be attended to: choice of place, architectural structure, decorations, straw, fir trees, music, etc. Every year is different.

Construction as such begins in St. Peter’s Square on Dec. 8, feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. It ends on Dec. 17. The Nativity scene is on display until Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple.

Of the 17 personages of the Nativity, nine are old in origin. They were part of the Nativity prepared in 1842 by St. Vincent Pallotti, in the Roman Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle. The other eight were added over the years to enrich the ensemble.

The novelty this year is that the Nativity is circular in shape, so that it can be appreciated from all points of the square.

At the center is the simple presentation of the nativity, with Jesus, Mary and Joseph. On the sides are scenes of daily life, as well as men and women in adoration before the Messiah, to whom they offer gifts.

The Christian symbols of water and fire are displayed on the sides of the Nativity. The water flows from two large receptacles, representing the source of life. The fire, including a chimney, represents the light and warmth of Christ.

Next to the Nativity scene is a monumental Christmas tree — this year, a 30-meter fir from Val d’Aosta in the Italian Alps.

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