Alongside biscuits and mulled wine, no Christmas in Tirol would be complete without a nativity scene. Almost all families have one. It is normally taken out of the cupboard shortly before 24 December, when Austrians celebrate Christmas, and set up in the living room for everyone to admire. The typical scene familiar to everyone from the Bible includes tiny shepherds and angels as well as Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus plus, of course, the ox and the donkey. Scroll down to learn more about the history of these miniature masterpieces.
Bible without words
As children, nativity scenes told us the story of Jesus’s birth. These “Bibles without words” existed in Tirol for hundreds of years as large carvings in churches. There, local people – many of whom could not read – were able to learn that the Christ Child was born in a stable, warmed by an ox and a donkey, and that the Holy Family was later visited by shepherds and Three Wise Men, who – together with the presents they brought the Baby Jesus – are traditionally added to the nativity scene on 5 January. The move from church-based nativity scenes to those at home goes back to a decree issued by Emperor Josef II in the 1780s. He found these depictions of Jesus’s birth “too child-like” and banned them – which Tirol’s strictly Catholic population to start making miniature versions for their own homes.
Emperor Josef II’s decree has long been revoked, so nativity scenes can today be found in churches throughout Tirol in the run-up to Christmas. Some are hugely intricate and well worth a visit in their own right. They are generally kept on display until the Catholic celebration of Candlemas on 2 February. Some of the finest carved nativity scenes in the region can be found in the churches in Axams, Tannheim, Hinterthiersee, Umhausen, Absam and Innsbruck’s Servitenkirche. Tirol’s biggest collection of nativity scenes large and small can be found at the Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum in Innsbruck – including an interactive video installation giving visitors the chance to experience what it is like being at the heart of the action as the nativity scene is built piece by piece. Another top tip are the region’s themed walking trails such as the Krippenpfad Imst, the Nassereither Krippenweg and the Krippenherberge Wildermieming, where the nativity scenes on display range from traditional to Oriental.
As well as these public exhibitions, there are also a number of private exhibitions. The Krippenverein Thaur, a collection of nativity scene carvers and enthusiasts based in the village of Thaur near Innsbruck, organises guided tours for small groups. Alternatively, simply ask the local tourist information office which homes in the region are happy to show off their nativity scenes without any booking or guided tour. Families are proud of their scenes and will be happy to explain the history, details and skills behind each one. Who knows, you might even be lucky enough to share a shot of schnapps with the carver himself before heading back out into the cold winter air!
How are nativity scenes made?
Most figurines traditionally used in nativity scenes in Tirol are carved from wood, though some are formed from clay or paper. Over the centuries there have been a number of legendary carvers in the region, including Johann Giner the Elder (1756–1833) from Thaur and Franz Xaver Nissl (1731–1804) from the village of Fügen in the Zillertal Valley. This tradition is alive and kicking today, with plenty of people still keen to create their own unique figurines as well as the landscape and setting. Here, too, there are certain traditions which most people follow: “There is a mountain for the shepherds,” explains one of the enthusiasts in a video on display at the Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum, “which is always on the left. Then there’s the most important part, the manger. Over on the right is the city of Jerusalem, where the Three Wise Men arrive from later in the story. And in front of the city there is always an area of green space covered with moss.” And yet, locals have always sought to bring a bit of local Tirolen flair to this biblical scene. In Nassereith, for example, all the figurines are shaped from clay – and the mountain where the shepherds stand is an exact replica of the mountain overlooking the village.
Ox, donkey – and a dyed poodle
Building such intricate and finely decorated nativity scenes is a true art. Local clubs and societies organise workshops where their members learn how to make lifelike palm trees, mountains and, of course, mangers for the Holy Family. One of the more eye-catching workshop topics is “Pudelfärben”, literally “poodle dyeing”. However, this has nothing to do with colourful canines but is in fact a term used to refer to the dried, finely ground moss (known in the jargon as “Pudel”), which is dyed before being sprinkled onto the mountain to give it a realistic appearance.
Another somewhat misleading term used in the making of nativity scenes is “Mandelbögen”. Many may expect something with almonds (“Mandeln”), but in fact these are pieces of paper which in the past contained small printed men (in Tirolean dialect “Mandeln”). These were painted, cut out and stuck onto pieces of wood for stability – a quick and easy way to make a basic nativity scene.