Each Christmas season, the Catholic families in the neighborhoods around Tu Dinh Church in the Go Vap District of Ho Chi Minh City transform their narrow lanes into a mini cave kingdom.
The artificial cave outside of the family home of Nguyen Gia Luan is one of the more prominent displays, about 3 meters high and nearly three times as long. His father and a half dozen neighbors this month draped a metal scaffolding in heaps of charcoal gray tarp, folded and shaped and crimped to look like a rock shelter. They dressed it up with strands of little lights and angel faces with wings.
Inside the grotto, they placed statues of baby Jesus Christ, his parents, Mary and Joseph, a donkey and an ox — Vietnam’s version of the nativity scene. It begs the question: Why is the birth of the savior in the Christian religion set in a cavern?
“Jesus was born in a cave,” Luan, a 25-year-old university student, said matter-of-factly. That unwavering conviction about the location of Jesus’ birth is surprising to most Westerners. In many Western countries including America, the nativity scene is almost always set, not in a cave, but in a wooden stable or barn.
But in Vietnam, from Hanoi to Dalat to Vung Tau, the outsides of churches, homes and businesses in Christian communities are adorned with dramatic nativity caves – some as small as a chair, others bigger than a double-decker bus; some silver and gleaming as if made of tinfoil, or white and crumpled to look like snow; or black and jagged and so big they look like the actual mouth of a cave; many with the simple tableau of the Holy Family and a couple of animals, some with a cast of characters including trumpeting angels and snowmen, and nearly all of them illuminated, with strands of little lights, or hanging stars or even spotlights.
In a certain sense, depicting Jesus’ birth in a cave is entirely appropriate. One of the holy sites of the Christian religion is the Church of the Nativity, built in Bethlehem south of Jerusalem in the 4th Century over a cave where early Christians believed that Jesus was born. According to the Vatican, which is the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, the first nativity scene was built in the 13th Century by Francis of Assisi in a grotto in Italy, where the caves reminded him of the countryside in Bethlehem.
But the Bible stories read at Christmas mass in Catholic churches don’t mention a cave. The passage in the Gospel of Luke says only that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
In Western churches, the reference to the manger – a box or trough used to feed animals – was interpreted to mean Jesus was born in a stable where animals were kept. That’s why the nativity traditions are so different in the East and in the West.
When the first cave nativity scene was built in Vietnam is unclear. By the 17th Century, Roman Catholic Jesuit missionaries had established permanent Christian communities in Vietnam. Christianity spread during the French colonization of Vietnam in the 1800s and 1900s, although even today only about 10 percent of Vietnam’s population is Christian.
Tuan Hoang, a Vietnamese studies scholar at Pepperdine University in California, said the tradition of the cave nativity scene began well before the Vietnam War and perhaps before World War II. One of the most popular Christmas hymns in Vietnam, "The Cave of Bethlehem," was written in 1945 by Catholic musician Francis Hai Linh in Nam Dinh Province as a challenge from a newspaper editor looking to publish a Christmas carol.
Around that time, Catholic music was mostly Gregorian chants and Latin Hymns or more modern French hymns translated into Vietnamese, Hoang said. But the mid-1940s saw the emergence of a spirit of nationalism and the creation of indigenous music like songs about the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Vietnam or Queen of Peace.
Hai Linh’s lyrics to “The Cave of Bethlehem” include:
"Jesus was born in a manger,
In the cave of Bethlehem, the light spreads jubilantly,
Listen to the heavenly singing of angels"
Hoang, who grew up in Bien Hoa, said, "The question is whether this carol helped to popularize the image of the cave — or did it reinforce an already established practice of nativity scene? My guess is that some churches had already used the cave nativity scene, and the hymn confirmed this association of nativity to a cave."
By the 1960s, if not earlier, Hoang said, “nativity caves were more ubiquitous at churches, then seeped into some private residences as well. Small sets of the nativity cave were also sold on the streets of Saigon.”
Like many of the Catholics in Go Vap, Luan’s family migrated from North Vietnam to the south in the mid-1950s, when the country was split into the communist North and the non-communist South after the defeat of the French. At the time, the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, himself a Catholic, encouraged Christians to move south, warning them of persecution under atheist communists. The Communist Party of Vietnam insists that, since its formation, it has issued policies to ensure freedom of religion and beliefs, and that Catholics have helped “enhance the nation’s prestige.”
Tu Dinh parish was founded in 1954, and as the neighborhood developed it grew to 3,000 families, including Luan’s. The neighborhood is also home to two other large churches, Thai Binh and Bac Dung, all within a few hundred meters of one another. The labyrinth of alleys around the churches are dotted with a variety of pink, black, white, beige and gray caves. They are often built next to lifesize statues of Mary or Joseph in tiny squares where residents gather nightly to pray. This week, visitors from around the city come to marvel at the scenes in the lanes, many of them aglow under canopies of white lights.
People in the neighborhood say the cave nativity scenes have been around since the parish was established, though over the years families have banded together to build bigger and more elaborate caves.
The nativity cave in the tiny square where four alleys meet outside of Luan’s house has been a tradition in the neighborhood for at least 10 years, he said. A handful of families each December take out of storage the scaffolding, many meters of tarp, strands of lights and the little statues, and they spend a few days rebuilding the cave, Luan said, standing in the square last week.
In the years before the Covid-19 pandemic, the cave was bigger, but money is tight these days. “As a Christian, I feel that having the caves built up every year is very sacred as a way to honor the most important day in the year, when Jesus was set to life by God to save humankind, and to maintain identity and tradition,” Luan said.
In its purest sense, the nativity scene expresses the true meaning of Christmas. But the extravagance of the holiday, as seen in the overcommercialization of Christmas, risks contaminating the cave tradition.
Father John Nguyen, a Catholic priest at St. Dominic Parish in Phu Nhuan in Ho Chi Minh City, where the church has a two-story cave in its courtyard, has mixed feelings about nativity scenes when they are built for show and in a competition to see who can put up the most grandiose display.
“They just come and say, ‘This cave is very big, this cave is very beautiful,’ and they take a picture and show it on the internet,” said Father John, who’s 49 and grew up in Go Vap. “I think the true meaning of the cave makes the people feel God comes, humble and poor, and makes the people connect with God. I think this is very important.”
In a narrow hem close to Tu Dinh church, Nguyen Ngoc Hai can see three nativity caves from the doorway of his little house. A hammock is strung just inside and on the wall outside, he advertises his business of repairing fans and rice cookers. His family has been putting up a white cave about the size of a refrigerator against a wall a few feet from his doorstep since they moved to Go Vap from Hanoi in 1954, said Hai, who’s 61.
Hai and his uncle make the cave with white nylon bags and put a flame to them to crinkle the fabric to look like jagged rock. They bought a new baby Jesus last year and some lights for 350,000 dong and they keep the cave up till Tet.
“We built the cave to celebrate the day Jesus was born,” Hai said. “I feel happy and joyful.”
Jenny Phan contributed to this report.