The contrast between the “Christian” crib and the “pagan” (or at least agnostic) Christmas tree is, in fact, a modern interpretation that has nothing to do with the origins of these representations.
“The Christmas tree is the child of very ancient pagan vegetable cults, but was christened much earlier than the crib,” the Vatican´s broadcasting station explains.
“The source of the two traditions is the same: the liturgical plays,” it adds. “Especially in Germany in the Middle Ages, the sacred Christmas plays represented the whole history of salvation, from original sin to the Incarnation. They started with the tree of good and evil, of which Adam and Eve took the classic apple.”
“On Christmas Eve an evergreen tree was placed in the square or Church and adorned with apples and hosts because, according to a popular tradition, the cross of Calvary would be made with the same wood of sin, and from Adam´s ´felix culpa,´ comes salvation,” Vatican Radio continues to explain.
In time, the apples were replaced by colored balls, the hosts by biscuits. Eventually, the decoration was completed with Christmas lights.
Tradition takes the origin of the crib back to Christmas Eve of 1223 in Greccio, when St. Francis had a cave in the woods prepared for a sacred, “living” representation of Christmas.
However, as early as the second century there were sculptures of the Christ Child in the crib, of the Blessed Virgin, and of the wise men, in sarcophagi, sacred vessels, and paintings in churches.