Christmas tree in the Vatican
Fr Konrad Hejmo, OP
The credit for Christmas tree in the Vatican, and exactly in St Peter's Square, undoubtedly goes to the Pope from Poland. We know that one of John Paul's predecessors Hadrian VI, Hollander, who led the Catholic Church for only 20 months (9 January 1522 - 14 September 1523), began changing the Vatican-Italian customs quite drastically, which irritated the Romans so much that only Italian popes were elected for 455 years.
The coming of the Pope 'from a distant country' was attentively observed and awaited. Far-reaching changes of customs were expected in the 'papal court' as it was used to be defined, and new Polish customs were expected in the Pope's daily life. Christmas was undoubtedly the occasion to introduce them.
You should know that the Italians did not have Christmas Eve traditions like the Poles. Therefore, now that the Pope from Krakow arrived at the Vatican and together with him there were Polish Sisters and his secretary, who comes from Raba Wyzna, the Christmas Eve had to be Polish, the highlander's. Christmas trees were not known apart from Tyrol until the times of John Paul II. The first Christmas tree appeared in St Peter's Square at Christmas in 1982, so it was in the fourth year of 'the Polish pontificate'.
On Christmas Eve, in 1982 the Holy Father said to the Polish people who were gathered to share the traditional wafer in the Clementine Hall, 'Christmas means receiving man in his whole truth, in his great dignity of the image and likeness of God as well as in his everyday sinfulness, in which God receives man. This is what the Night of Bethlehem means. Therefore, we adhere to this Bethlehem Night so much, we approach it with all ways of heart, culture, tradition, and our wafer takes this tradition into the dimension of the relationship of one man to another man'.
On 1 January 1983, in the Clementine Hall, the Pope directed the following words to the Polish youth, who came to Rome for the international meeting organised by the Taize Community, 'Our Polish interpretation of Christmas is especially rich ... Every custom, which contributes to Christmas traditions in Poland, is some chapter, some expression to read the mystery of Christmas by all generations of our forefathers and by our generation. God offers us his reconciliation... And thus the bread of reconciliation is born... God comes to man; God offers reconciliation with him... And hence as if the first response of man is born. If God makes us reconciled with him, if Christ is born in Bethlehem, this means that I, human being, must be reconciled with my brother'. This whole theological richness of Christmas is included in carols.
Another element of the Polish tradition is a Christmas tree. 'What does this tree mean? ... I personally think that this tree is the symbol of the tree of life, this tree, which Genesis talks of, and this tree, which was with Christ planted anew in the soil of humankind. Once man was cut from the tree of life by sin. The moment Christ came into the world, this tree of life in Him, by Him was planted anew in the soil of life of humankind, and it grows with him and matures to the cross. There is a relationship between the Christmas Eve tree and the tree of the cross of the Good Friday. The Passover mystery... How beautiful and illustrious the tradition is, the more that these trees glisten. They symbolise life and light. Christ is life and light. I must tell you that I myself, although I am old, look forward to Christmas and the tree being placed in my room. There is some deep meaning in all this, and it unites us regardless our age: both adults and young children react similarly although at a different level of consciousnesses'.
It is astonishing that when an Italian Christmas tree and Nativity scene were placed in St Peter's Square for the first time before the Christmas of 1982, they met no protest. On the contrary, it seemed that as if St Peter's had waited for such a completion for ages. The magnificent Baroque composition of columns, which resembles open, outstretched arms, assumed a new expression. It tenderly embraced the mystery of the Incarnated Word in the heart of the Church. The Egyptian obelisk, symbol of endurance of everlasting values, reminds us that Christus vincit, Christus regnat - Christ wins, Christ reigns. The Christmas tree and the Nativity scene, visible from St Angel Castle, add festive glitter to the entire architecture of the square, columns and St Peter's Basilica.
The tradition of Christmas trees in homes and squares was completely new in Italy. One must admit that the appearance of the tree in St Peter's Square and in the Holy Father's palace in the Vatican caused an avalanche reaction. Magnificent Christmas trees appeared in many Italian houses, and in streets and city squares trees supplanted other Christmas decorations.
However, the tradition of Nativity scenes has already existed in Italy. Almost every family builds, glues and sculptures Christmas cribs during Advent, and before Christmas the Holy Father blesses Baby Jesus statues in St Peter's Square during the Angelus. These figurines are placed in family cribs on Christmas Eve. As you know the tradition of Nativity scenes was initiated by St Francis of Assisi and the tradition was not only kept in Greccio. Even today the local inhabitants go to a stable with cattle, put up in a field, in order to commemorate the events of the Franciscan Nativity play.
The tradition of Nativity scenes in Rome goes back to the 13th century. The relics of the Bethlehem crib have been kept in St Mary Major Basilica since the 7th century. Another famous place in Rome, known for its Bethlehem crib, has been the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in the Capitol, where the miraculous statuette of Baby Jesus was kept. Recently it was stolen and a new sculpture was put. At Christmas Roman families bring their children here so that the children can say their prayers and songs in front of the Babe. On the altar behind the statue there are thousands of letters from all over Italy, and even the whole world, including Poland...
In the 20th century the most famous Nativity scene was placed in the Church of St Andrew of the Valley. It was St Vincent Pallotti, who put it up for the first time in 1846. The statues and the whole decoration were funded by Prince Alessandro Torlonia. They were placed in the main altarpiece under the red canopy, mounted with a royal crown. It was the scene of the adoration of the Baby by the Magi, the Mother of God and St Joseph. All figures were of natural height. The sculptures were made by the Roman artist Pietro Camagalli. In the period of the Epiphany St Vincent organised prayers here. With time the prayers took the form of services with sermons, also celebrated in other languages. The services were also conducted in eastern rites, with prayers for unity of all Christians.
It is worth mentioning that during that time this church was a meeting point of the Polish immigrants living in Rome. They could not pray in St Stanislaus Church for certain time and they met for Sunday services at St Andrew's. It was from this place that Adam Mickiewicz led out his legion to Turkey. When the canopy over the crib was burnt the statues were sent to the exhibition in Monschau-Hoffen, Germany.
These statues were placed in St Peter's in the first and subsequent scenes, put up at the Egyptian obelisk. The Romans enthusiastically welcomed the return of Pallotti's tradition in St Peter's Square. Thousands of Romans and pilgrims from all over the world visit the Nativity scene. It has become the destination of family and friendly walks in the Eternal City. That is why, to the dissatisfaction of liturgists, it was decided to prolong the presence of the scene and of the tree as long as possible. They are lavishly lit in the evening, decorated with thousands of elements (one day they were also Polish baubles, brought by the custo of the sanctuary of our Lady of Fatima in Zakopane-Krzeptówki - Fr Miroslaw Drozdek, SAC).
Christmas trees are prepared several months in advance. The first one, in 1982, was from Italy, but in 1983 the tree was sent by Austria (Wilten in Tyrol). In 1984 Germany offered a tree (Regensburg in Bavaria), and in 1985 the tree was brought again from Italian Tyrol. Dobbiaco, Italy, sent the tree in 1986, and Austria (Caryntia) in 1987. The tree of 1988 came from Cadore in Italy, where the Holy Father spent his summer vacation. In 1989 the upper Austria decorated St Peter's. In 1990 the tree was sent by Brescia, Italy, and in 1991 it was offered by Voralberg, Austria. In 1992 the tree was from Bozen/Bolzano, Upper Adyga, Italy. In 1993 the tree was donated by Graz-Seckau, Styria, Austria, and in 1994 from Slovakia, in 1995 from Regensburg, Bavaria, Germany. In 1996 the tree was sent by Slovenia and in 1997 by Zakopane, Ksiezowka. In 1998 the Germans from Bad Sackingen brought the tree. In 1999 the tree was sent from Ostrava, the Czech Republic, and in the Jubilee Year the tree was brought from Caryntia, Austria. In 2001 the tree came from Romania, Hairgitha, Transilvania. In 2002 the tree from Rijeki was donated by Croatia and in 2003 it was Valle d'Aosta, which sent its tree. It was here that the Holy Father spent his July holiday. This year the tree was offered by Trentino (the Italian Tyrol).
When the Christmas tree is brought there is a special celebration first at the Vatican and then in St Peter's Square. High rank representatives of the country, which donates a tree, are always present as well as cardinals and many distinguished guests, various officials of the country and the region. It is a feast of the local place or country that is celebrated in Rome. There are speeches, carols and at some moment the Holy Father or a cardinal lights the tree and the Nativity scene. For 22 years Christmas has become the most spectacular feast in Rome and the Vatican, and it lasts over a month - till the end of January or even till 2 February.
The Christmas tree in St Peter's Square emphasises the great mystery of fraternity between God and man, God who became a weak Baby so that man can have courage to entrust his life to God Almighty and with a raised head he can take more and more difficult tasks of life and challenges of his epoch.