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Home/Stories and articles/Recovery
December 2002

Crib's history:
A two thousand year-long history in Chile

The tradition of representing Christ's birth with figures was brought from Europe by the Christian missions that arrived to America during the Conquest times. But now it is long rooted among Chilean craftsmen. The shopping logic makes the crib not just something to remember a story that happened 2,000 years ago, but also an economic source. That doesn't mean the craftsmen work with no care. Each figure is made fast thanks to experience, but with the dedication and patience that a handmade piece needs.

By Rosario Mena


It was Saint Francis of Assisi who established this way to make visible Jesus birth. In 1223, in Greccio, the Saint made a live representation of Nazareth's crib. Since then, the act became a tradition inside the Franciscan and Saint Claire Orders, until reaching the whole of Europe's Christian community.

The Christian missions that arrived to America introduced this tradition during the Conquest times. Specifically, in the 17th Century different religious orders saw in cribs an effective evangelization mean.

Since that time, all convents prepared it with days of anticipation and the help of the whole community. Priests, churches and parishioners would form a team that would work for days to build the crib to be placed at the altar's front.

The first cribs made in Chile were ruled by European standards. Among them, the preparation of a table to put all the characters. Over it was represented geography and its volumes —with materials such as sand, soil and green paint. The figures of the Virgin, Saint Joseph and the child were made by the families themselves or could be bought. Animals included a donkey, a bull, sheep, cocks, hens and ducks. There were also the figures of the Three Kings: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

This changed slowly according to the Chilean landscape and costumes. So, they were included elements such as corn, put on clay trays with some mud (as a symbol of abundance) and baskets with dry fruits as gifts. Near the Child one could find traditional wooden toys. Sometimes, small clothes and typical peasant hats.

At the beginning of the 19th Century, all churches and high-class homes made a crib. In the latter, doors would be opened so the rest of the neighborhood could adore Jesus Child. Children and adults would go to the crib and leave presents, like the three Kings did. First, it was typical food. Later, people started bringing clay figures made in towns like Talagante, Quinchamalí and Pomaire, close to Santiago. The set was complete with Chilean flags, copihues (Chilean typical flower) and straw.

The crib would bring people to other traditions, like Christmas carols (a costume that came from Spain) or the "song to the divine". Within that context, it could not be missed the "Misa del gallo", a mass made at midnight, on December 24th. All these made Christmas become a religious holiday rooted on the Chilean traditions.

A handcraft made with care
Since centuries ago Chilean craftsmen made part of their work the cribs traditions. Today, there are several techniques used, and there are a number of different results, depending on the creator's style. Each figure is made fast thanks to experience, but with the dedication and patience that a handmade piece needs.

Maybe it is the fact that the king that has become a Child was born in a poor crib, what makes craftsmen continue to represent it with materials that have no luxury, just like San Francis did. The hands touching the materials are like Jesus-Child's skin touching diapers and the straw, which replaced the golden cradle.

The shopping logic makes the crib not just something to remember this story which happened 2,000 years ago, but also an economic source for December. This doesn't mean each craftsman works with no care. They are people especially concerned with the representation of the holy birth. For them, the child must look adorable; the Virgin, pure and beautiful; Joseph, respectable and kind and the Three Kings, elegant and humble. The result is figures that look naive and tender. The idea is to make tangible a love story, using the technique in a perfect way, with the full domain of the materials, like red clay, horsehair, embroideries, ceramics... all part of Chilean handcraft.

-Catalogue from the 28th International Tradition Handcraft Exhibit, Parque Bustamante. November 2000.

-"Christmas in Grecio, the first Christmas crib representation", by Pbro. Andrés Vidal, Colegio Romano del IVE, Ponzano Romano, Italy, December 8th, 1998.


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