The thriving Czech tradition of Christmas nativity scenes

The exhibition of nativity scenes at Clementinum

Every Christmas season, nativity scenes representing the birth of Jesus are among the biggest attractions in churches and town squares in Czechia, drawing children and adults alike. The display seems especially abundant this year when the Catholic world marks 800 years since the first nativity scene was staged in Italy by St. Francis of Assisi inspired by his visit to the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem in the Holy Land.

Prague’s Old Town Square | Photo: Martin Vaniš,  Radio Prague International

Prague’s historic Old Town Square has for many years been the main venue of the city’s Christmas markets – a tradition that was renewed after the fall of communism. The nativity scene, a simple wooden sculpture representing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem gives the market a spiritual dimension.

A stone’s throw from the Old Town Square, an entire exhibition of Czech nativity scenes is on display. The Clementinum Gallery, which is part of the Czech National Library, showcases the best examples of the craft. To commemorate the 800th anniversary of the tradition, a group of artists joined forces to create a special, three-metre-long mechanical nativity scene. Vladimír Glaser heads the Czech association of nativity scene builders.

“This is the anniversary nativity scene that a number of artists worked on. Some did the painting work, some built houses, some did the carving and then we somehow made it move. It was made in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi whose sandstone sculpture is standing over there in the corner overseeing everything.”

The medieval Italian saint is credited with first arranging a nativity scene 800 years ago, in 1223, in the region of Lazio, when he brought in live animals and held a Christmas mass at the manger.

View of Prague from the Clementinum Astronomical Tower | Photo: Magdalena Hrozínková,  Radio Prague International

The first nativity scene in the Czech lands was introduced in 1562 at Prague’s Clementinum which was at that time a Jesuit college. That’s why the same venue was chosen a hundred years ago, in 1923, to stage an exhibition of nativity scenes from across the country to mark the anniversary of St. Francis’ Christmas mass.

“At that time, in 1923, the exhibition showcased the best, the most representative samples from the entire country. Now we are presenting contemporary folk or folk-inspired nativity scenes. As far as nativity scenes are concerned, the term folk does not mean that we do not know the author, that it’s some nameless ‘people’. It means the scenes are populated with common people working or showing something to the Holy Family. A unique feature of the Czech tradition is that they are bringing gifts to baby Jesus. You won’t find gift-bearers in any other culture.”

Typically, those gifts include traditional Czech Christmas pastry, a bag of flour, a goose, a lamb, a barrel of beer. The inspiration may come from Czech Christmas carols, many of which mention bringing gifts to newborn Jesus.

The exhibition of nativity scenes at Clementinum | Photo: Emma Mangon,  Radio Prague International

In Czechia, it is quite common to place the nativity scene in actual Bohemian landscape. The town of Bethlehem is depicted like a Bohemian village in winter complete with snow and local farm animals and vegetation. Its inhabitants are dressed in modern-era clothes typical for this part of Europe, as though Jesus was born in the middle of a Central European winter. Similarly, the setting of the nativity scene made especially for the anniversary exhibition in Prague’s Clementinum Gallery is not the Holy Land but rather the picturesque Prague district of Kampa in the year 1906. Among the gift bearers are a number of Prague celebrities from the period. Using real life models is not unusual among Czech nativity scene makers, as Vladimír Glaser points out.

“Overall, there are 32 creators and 42 nativity scenes represented at the exhibition. Some were co-authored by more people. The biggest and tallest one is the life-size nativity scene by Romana Krestýnová. She is a rather petite woman but when she grabs a chainsaw, she carves figures that have to be carried by three strong men. The interesting thing is that when she carves, she uses her neighbours as models. She invites them over for a glass of wine, watches them and carves the individual figures. It is quite a usual practice, because the easiest way is to use a live model. The most important figures, of course, are baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Joseph but they are usually not modelled on any particular person.”

Vladimír Glaser | Photo: Emma Mangon,  Radio Prague International

The Czech word for nativity scene is Betlém meaning Bethlehem and it is only fitting that another exhibition of nativity scenes is taking place at the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, not far from the Clementinum Gallery, featuring among other items, a nativity scene made from glass.

They indeed come in all shapes and sizes. Nativity scene builders or “Betlémáři” as they are called in Czech use dried corn leaves, clay, gingerbread, puppets, beads, bobbin lace, embroidery, soap, bread – pretty much any material and technique you can think of. The tiny village of Máslovice near Prague whose name is related to the Czech word for butter has its own museum of butter and every winter it displays a nativity scene freshly carved from real butter.

The church of St. Matthew in the Prague district of Dejvice has the sweetest smelling nativity scene of all. In a tradition going back to the 1970s, the church displays a nativity scene composed of gingerbread characters. In its most prolific years, there were up to 300 figures.

Gingerbread nativity scene in the church of St. Matthew in Prague  | Photo: Radio Prague International

Opočno Castle in East Bohemia has chosen a material that goes well with the setting of the manger – their nativity scene is made from hay. It was first presented last year on a wooden platform outside the castle gate and this year a cow and a donkey have been added to the scene. One of the artists who worked on the sculptures is Lucie Hvězdová. She describes the process, as she attaches sheaves of hay onto a metal frame in the shape of the animal covered with wire mesh.

Opočno chateau | Photo: Pavla Horáková,  Radio Prague International

“It takes us about two weeks to finish this. Let me show you how it’s done. I have sheaves of hay prepared by my colleagues beforehand. I grab one sheaf which is tied with a wire, I have to attach it to the mesh which covers the frame and I tie it in place with that wire. I have to mind my fingers because it’s prickly, but then it holds like this and hopefully, the whole thing will last. Once the sheaves are attached to the mesh frame, we bind the whole cow with string and finally, we fix it all with varnish, so the strings of hay won’t fall out.”

Nativity scene made of hay,  Prague | Illustrative photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International

While the works in Opočno started as late as November, for many nativity scene builders it is a year-round job. Woodcarver Jaroslav Frencl from the town of Volyně in South Bohemia has a thousand nativity scenes under his belt. His work is displayed in Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, in the US states of Florida and Minnesota, and even as far as Australia. He started working on the larger-than-life nativity scene intended for the square in his hometown of Volyně as early as June. To carve the figures of Joseph and Mary that are just under two metres tall, he used powerful electric tools.

Probošt Bethlehem in Třebechovice pod Orebem | Photo: Barbora Němcová,  Radio Prague International

“When I work with oak, I use a chainsaw, because the log is two metres big. Then I use various grinders, but I work on the final part with chisels. This is local oak, and the reason we chose this material is that it is durable. The nativity scene will be located outdoors, so it has to be able to withstand different weather conditions. When I use powerful tools, it takes two months. If I were to use just chisels, it would take much longer and it would be costly. This is a battery-operated chainsaw which I use for the more detailed things.”

Traditionally, wood is the most common material used for building nativity scenes. Probably the most famous one in Czechia is the one displayed in a dedicated museum in the town of Třebechovice pod Orebem in East Bohemia. Known as the “Probošt Bethlehem”, the almost seven-meter-long mechanical nativity scene is composed of over 2000 parts. It features not only the birth of Christ but also his death on the cross.

Probošt Bethlehem in Třebechovice pod Orebem | Photo: Barbora Němcová,  Radio Prague International

The Třebechovice museum and the one in the village of Karlštejn near Prague house the largest collections of nativity scenes in Czechia, but there are other smaller specialised museums all around the country and many regional institutions also exhibit collections of nativity scenes.

Nativity scenes as collectable items can also be found in many homes in Czechia. Among the most prolific collectors are Marta Šenkapounová and her husband Pavel from the village of Chotusice in Central Bohemia. They have dedicated thirty years to their hobby.

“We have pieces from South America and three from Africa. This is a tiny nativity scene fitted in a matchbox. It’s made from beans and various spices, it is quite rare. We have tiny nativity scenes tucked into the shells of almonds and walnuts and the smallest one is in a hazelnut shell.”

The Šenkapoun family collection contains nativity scenes made from fabric, ceramics, wires, leather, wax, beads and straw. But paper is the most common material in their collection.

“It happened sort of by accident. My husband was always interested in modelmaking, working with various paper cutouts. So when in the 1990s paper nativity scenes appeared on the market, I started buying them for him. Then I discovered nativity scenes from other materials. I like handicraft so I was interested in that and, all of a sudden, all this materialised here.”

Textile and straw nativity scenes | Illustrative photo: Radio Prague International

The custom of paper cutout nativity scenes blossomed in the interwar period when commercial companies printed their own nativity scenes that people could cut out from paper and assemble in their own homes. Many towns in Czechia follow up on the tradition and publish cutout nativity scenes located in their historic centres. Pavel Šenkapoun says the most challenging one to put together was the one from the town of Třebíč.

“This is the Třebíč nativity scene. It has over 300 figures. It took me several years to make. I had to cut it all out and create the landscape. At that time, my wife and I were still working and we didn’t have that much free time. So, I put it all together in the evenings.”

Marta Šenkapounová and her husband’s collection also contains some unusual items. One of them is over fifty years old and carries a political message. It features prominent Czechoslovak figures from the time of the 1968 Prague Spring reform movement who were prosecuted in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia later that year.

“We have a rare nativity scene by artist Cyril Bouda from the year 1969. Mary is the singer Marta Kubišová, Joseph is then communist party leader Alexander Dubček. Another top official, Josef Smrkovský, is a musician playing the double bass, and the actor Pavel Landovský is one of the three Wise Men. Children are dressed in the costumes of the official Czechoslovak youth organisation, and they hold up banners saying ‘Long Live Baby Jesus’ and so on. It is very precious.”

Paper nativity scene | Photo: Jolana Nováková,  Czech Radio

Involving real-life personalities or items from a different time and place in the biblical scene is not uncommon among Czech nativity scene builders. The town of Loštice near Olomouc prides itself on a wooden nativity scene featuring the famous Moravian painter Alfons Mucha, composer Leoš Janáček, and more recently the escaped convict Jiří Kajínek whom woodcarver Jaroslav Beneš also included in the scenery. The Prague Church of Saint Anthony of Padua displays a wooden nativity scene from 1904 where all human figures are dressed in the folk costumes of different Slavic nations.

Photo: Hana Slavická,  Radio Prague International

Catholic churches do not unveil their own nativity scenes until December 24, the day Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Interestingly, in late 18th century, Emperor Joseph II. banned nativity scenes from churches, as part of his reforms curbing the power of the Catholic Church. That’s when they started spreading from places of worship into people’s homes. The tradition of crèche building experienced a golden age in the interwar period when many Czechs were leaving the Catholic Church, and in a peculiar twist of historic irony, continues to thrive in what is one of the world’s most secular countries.

Author: Pavla Horáková | Source: Český rozhlas
run audio


  • Czech Christmas

    Radio Prague International has prepared a selection of articles on Christmas traditions for you.