ROME – Amid spiraling folk dancers and trumpeting hymns, the Vatican unveiled this year’s Nativity scene on Dec. 7 in St. Peter’s Square, which this year is sculpted in 720 tons of sand.
Underneath a large gazebo, the gravity and weather defying creche unfolds in three arches, with the Holy Family taking center stage. A gift from the Italian region of Veneto, the Sand Nativity is made of golden sand from the Dolomites and hand-sculpted.
On its left, the 42-foot-tall red spruce tree, donated by the Diocese of Concordia-Pordenone in Friuli Venezia Giulia, was also lit during the ceremony. A large crowd cheered at the sight of the unusual Nativity scene and glittering tree.
Representatives from the region of Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia had the opportunity to meet the pontiff earlier in the day. “He told us things that we will not forget,” they said at the ceremony.
These two Christmas symbols, Pope Francis told the delegations that brought the creche and the tree to Rome, “help us contemplate the mystery of God, who made man in order to be close to us.”
— Claire Giangrave (@ClaireGiangrave) December 7, 2018
Sand, he said, is a poor material that “recalls the simplicity, the littleness and frailty with which God shows himself through the birth of Jesus in the precariousness of Bethlehem.”
“The child Jesus, Son of God and our Savior, whom we lay in the manger, is holy in poverty, littleness, simplicity and humility,” the pope continued. “By contemplating the God-child who emanates light in the humility of the manger, we, too, can become witnesses of humility, tenderness and goodness.”
Francis also reflected on the meaning of the Christmas tree, whose lights “remind us that Jesus is the light of the world, the light of the soul that drives out the darkness of enmity and makes room for forgiveness.”
Also, the height of the tree is meant to signify “God who – through the birth of his son, Jesus – came down to man to raise him to himself and elevate him from the fog of selfishness and sin.”
The pope wasn’t the only one searching for deeper meaning in these traditional Christmas symbols.
Italian Bishop Giuseppe Pellegrini of Concordia-Pordenone described the Christmas tree as a “survivor,” since it managed to resist the heavy rains and gusts of wind that crippled the Friuli Venezia Giulia region in November, leaving many families without water or electricity.
“It’s a symbol of life and strength,” Pellegrini said during a press conference Dec. 7, “a sign of light, which it brings before all.”
The illumination of the tree was handled by Osram, a company that promises a lower use of electricity and in January will bring a new illumination system to St. Peter’s.
The “survivor spruce tree” will also live on after its seasonal stop in St. Peter’s Square, since the bishop announced that it will become “toys for poor children.”
The curious choice of making a Nativity Scene out of sand, a tradition since 2002 in Jesolo, was explained by the Patriarch of Venice Francesco Moraglia.
“The mystery takes shape in the ephemeral sand, which is the earth,” Moraglia said, adding that it represents “fragility, precariousness, because man is like a field flower, which blooms in the morning and is already exsiccated by evening.”
The Sand Nativity, he explained, is an encouragement to reflect on the present, “which forces a reflection to purify our harshness” that hints to a greater message: “fragility can be saved.”
“We use the Nativity as a symbol that asks to examine our conscience so that we may be announcers of welcoming in the same way that God welcomes us,” he said.
Speaking before the exited crowd gathered in front of the Vatican for the tree-lighting ceremony, Moraglia said that “the Nativity represents the event that changed the world, which was realized and continues to live in our faith. God makes it so that we humans can be saved and are able to save others.”
“We see here the mystery making use of the humble earth, the sand of Jesolo, to take shape,” he added. “It’s a creche that is capable of uniting the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity with the material works of mercy.”
Spanish Archbishop Fernando Vergez de Alzaga, Secretary General of the Vatican City State, also attended the merry and music-filled ceremony. The combination of skill and technology used for the nativity and the tree, he said, “show how technique and practical knowledge can, if used wisely, value the same message and make it more efficient.”