In an inauguration ceremony Thursday, the Vatican officially unveiled this year’s nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, also lighting the 69-foot Christmas tree for the first time this year.
In an audience with the tree and nativity donors Dec. 7, Pope Francis reflected on the symbolism found in the two Christmas traditions, which he said are “signs of the compassion of the heavenly Father, of his participation and closeness to humanity” even in its “very difficulties.”
The branches of the tree, “reaching upward,” remind us to reach for “the highest gifts,” he explained. And in “the simplicity of the crib we meet and contemplate the tenderness of God” as manifested in the Child Jesus.
This year’s Vatican nativity scene was created by artisans in a local workshop and donated by an ancient Benedictine Abbey, the Sanctuary of Montevergine, which lies near Naples.
A special detail of this year’s scene: in one corner hangs a replica of the icon of Our Lady of Montevergine, a nod to the abbey which donated it. The original image, which is 12 feet tall, hangs in the chapel of the Sanctuary of Montevergine.
Outside of the traditional nativity figures of Mary, Joseph, the child Jesus, the Wise Men, shepherds, an angel, and animals, the other figures are represented in the act of performing the 7 Corporal Works of Mercy, such as burying the dead, visiting the imprisoned, and clothing the naked.
The approximately 6 1/5-foot-tall figures are made of colored terracotta and dressed in traditional eighteenth-century Neapolitan costumes. The whole scene is built on a platform about 861-square-feet in size.
In a change from past years, this one includes a technological element; visitors can connect to a special Wi-Fi access point in St. Peter’s Square and scan a QR code to watch a video to learn more about the nativity.
The Christmas tree is a northern European tradition which has only recently become more common in Italy. The tradition to have a tree in St. Peter’s Square was begun by St. John Paul II in 1982.
This year’s tree, which comes from Poland, is 69-feet tall and about 60 years old. Its tip was lost when it was struck by lightning several years ago.
It was donated by the Archdiocese of Elk and cut down by a local forestry service, which transported it by truck over more than 1200 miles in 12 days to reach Rome, traveling mostly by night, when traffic is less dense.
The ornaments which decorate the spruce were created by children with cancer and their parents from several hospitals in Italy, as well as by children from Italian zones affected by earthquakes the past two years.
The ornaments were created in clay by the children and then reproduced using synthetic materials which can stand up to the weather in St. Peter’s Square.
The nativity and tree will remain in St. Peter’s Square until Jan. 7, 2018, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.