Austrian Christmas Creches – Weihnachtskrippen
Tucked inside a small rectangular gold box, the beauty of which is further enhanced by 13 stunning precious stones each accented by pearls, is a piece of Christ’s manger, a gift from Pope Urban V to the Habsburg Emperor Karl IV in 1368. It now resides in Vienna’s Schatzkammer (Treasury) in the Hofburg complex.
Speculation, of course, but some sources suggest that this relic may have come from a manger included in a scene set up in the 7th century in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome to duplicate the Bethlehem cave in which Christ was born. The cave used for the 7th century depiction supposedly contained a fragment from the original Bethlehem cave that was a much venerated relic.
Nativity scenes were already popular in painting and sculpture when in 1223 St. Francis of Assisi set up a live Nativity scene in the forest near Greccio, using a manger and a real ox and donkey. St. Francis invited his colleagues and the local populace to join him there to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, thus inaugurating a tradition that is still observed today throughout the Christian world. In a time when few could read and write, visual aids were quite useful in spreading the faith.
In Austria, the custom of setting up crèches, or Krippen, in churches is thought to have started in Graz in 1579 with the Jesuits and spread rapidly throughout the country. Early scenes were simple, limited to figures of Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child in a manger, an ox and a donkey all inside a rough cave-like stable. But as this tradition grew, other biblical scenes were added, for example, the arrival of the shepherds and the giving of gifts by the Three Kings. As the years passed, the scenes themselves expanded to include the whole village of Bethlehem, though depicted with Austrian landscapes and the figures dressed in local Austrian clothing.
The annual display of crèches in Austria temporarily came to a halt around 1786 when Emperor Joseph II began instituting his religious reforms. One of his edicts forbade setting up crèches inside churches. Instead of throwing them out, many churches gave their crèches to local families thus insuring this popular Christmas tradition continued, but in a different setting. Some of these late 18th century crèches have survived having been handed down by families from generation to generation to the present day, and in most cases, added on to. In some villages, families open their homes during the holidays to share their family crèches with their neighbors and even tourists.
In Vienna, the magnificient 1,000 piece Jaufenthaler family Krippe, which came from an Alpine village near Innsbruck, can be seen in the Austrian Folklore Museum (Oesterreichisches Museum fuer Volkskunde). Parts of the Jaufenthaler Krippe date back to the late 18th century, around the time Joseph II’s reforms were first implemented. Although details as to how the family acquired the original pieces have not survived, the crèche remained in the family for four generations. Simon Jaufenthaler, the great grandson of the original receiver, sold the crèche in 1897 to the Austrian Folklore Museum to safeguard it for future generations.
Covering over 22 square meters, the créche includes 256 clothed figures plus scores of angels. The oldest pieces have carved wooden heads, while younger pieces are formed from wax. The créche contains a grand mixture of religious and secular scenes. There is a scene of the Wedding of Cana, and another depicting 12 year old Jesus preaching in the temple. Herod is shown on the throne of Solomon with its golden lions. A military caravan with uniformed soldiers and horses winds its way around and down the Alpine mountain setting with waving palm trees in the painted backdrop. Villagers are dressed in Tyrolean local costume and occupied with their daily tasks. Women are spinning or drawing water from wells. Peddlars are shown with their rucksacks. There are weighing scales and piles of fruits and vegetables ready for market, winesellers with their small flasks, farmers sowing crops in the fields or riding in their sleighs, shepherds with their flocks, an hunter and his stag. An astrologer is shown with his telescope. There are both grand and humble homes as well as a fully furnished kitchen. Numerous cows, sheep, goats, geese, chickens, a dog chasing a pig, geese in the water, a capricorn, plus two sheep hung up ready for slaughter enhance the life of the village scene. And in the midst of it all, one finds the Nativity with elegantly dressed figures of Mary and Joseph and the swaddled Christ Child nestled in his manger. The Jaufenthaler Krippe is a pageant of wonders.
Many churches and museums throughout Austria have special displays of crèches during the holidays. St. Peter’s Church off the Graben in Vienna has been displaying crèches in its crypt since the end of WWII. Innsbruck has a large collection of old crèches on display in its Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum. Steyr has a mechanical crèche that includes some pieces dating back to the 18th century. It still works and draws visitors for Sunday performances during advent every year. Steyr also has the largest crèche in Austria with 800 carved figures that can be seen in Lamberg House.
But while the crèche remains popular in churches and museums, it is its presence in Austrian homes that is still central to Christmas in Austria. Unlike the Christmas tree that is the prominent symbol for Christmas in most Protestant homes throughout Europe, in Austrian Catholic homes the crèche still signifies the Christmas holiday season.
Article Author: Billie Ann Lopez
Billie Ann Lopez was an American freelance writer, born and raised in Kansas. For many years she called Vienna, the city she loved, home. Billie Ann’s articles tell you about the legends, places in Austria not often on the tourist maps and subjects close to her heart. Informative, descriptive and interesting she acquainted you with her Austria.
Billie Ann Lopez passed away September 13th, 2003. She enriched our lives through her friendship, caring and writings. Billie Ann, you are greatly missed. Silvia McDonald