You can’t throw a stone in the Holy Land without someone admonishing you about casting the first one, and that stone rarely meets the ground without first hitting some religious relic. For Christians, the top relics date back 2,000 years to the birth of Christ which the New Testament says occurred in Bethlehem in what some say was a stable and others claim was a cave. One thing not disputed (partly because it would ruin a favorite Christmas carol and every Christmas tree Nativity scene in existence) is the part of the first crib, which the New Testament says was a manger – a wooden trough used to hold food for livestock. Now, just in time for the holiday and holy day that event has evolved into, an alleged piece of that original manger has been returned to Bethlehem. Where was it and where has it been for the last 2,000 years?
“When there is a very old and continuous tradition, we can say that the relic is true. Of course, we don’t have a picture of the manger when Jesus was born.”
What Brother Francesco Patton, the custodian of the Franciscan order in the Holy Land which will be the keepers of relic at the Franciscan Church of St. Catherine next to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on the West Bank, is referring to is a tiny piece of wood from a set of five ancient wooden slats stored in Rome in a chamber under the altar of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. The deteriorating pieces of sycamore have been protected there inside a silver and glass cradle-shaped reliquary since they were obtained by Pope Theodore I (640–649), earning the church the nickname Sancta Maria ad Praesepe (Saint Mary of the Crib). Where was it between 1 and 640 CE?
While replicas of it don’t look as nice under a Christmas tree, a grotto or cave used to house livestock was the most likely location of the wooden manger. What was believed to be the actual cave was protected by early Christians, used as a place of worship and fought over by various sects. In 135, Emperor Hadrian was said to have turned the site above the grotto converted into a worship place for Adonis, the mortal lover of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty. Early Christian writers after the Gospel of St. Luke reference a grotto (St. Justin, martyred in 165; Origen of Alexandria, an early Christian scholar (184-253)), but it was the Roman Empress Helena (later Saint Helena), mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, who put in on actual maps by decorating the grotto with marble and turning it into a formal chapel. Constantine was believed to have built the first basilica over what has become known as the Crypt of the Nativity.
The five wooden slats were most likely stored in or near the crypt and basilica until the Muslim conquest of the Levant (also known as the Arab conquest of the Levant) in the first half of the 7th century after the death of the prophet Muhammed. According to historical sources, Theodore was a Greek inhabitant of Jerusalem and a member of the Christian clergy who fled the city for Rome ahead of the conquest, allegedly taking with him relics of the crypt including the five wooden slats. Theodore moved up the ladder and became pope in 642. During his time as pope, Theodore I built Sancta Maria ad Praesepe as the permanent home of the relics, which eventually were brought out once a year for Christmas. And now, for the first time since it was moved out, a tiny piece of the alleged manger has returned to the Holy Land, where it will be on display in Jerusalem before moving back to Bethlehem.
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with popularizing the Nativity scene recreated under trees and in front of churches today. The carol, “Away in the Manger,” has never been traced to a single author but ironically first appeared in 1882 as "Luther's Cradle Song" because it was allegedly composed by Martin Luther for his own children and became a German lullaby. However, there’s no solid evidence for this link to Luther.
Is there enough evidence to link the tiny piece of wood and the five slats it came from to the original Nativity scene in a cave in Bethlehem? Not really – Brother Francesco Patton’s “continuous tradition” isn’t science and no tests are known to have been run on the slats.
Rest assured -- that won’t hurt the song, the Nativity scenes or the “Merry Christmas” greeting.