The Birth of the Nativity Scene
The first-ever Nativity scene recorded in history was created by St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis was concerned that the meaning of Christmas was becoming lost as most people were more focused with the ritual of gift giving them they were of the true message of Christmas.
Determined to remind people what Christmas is really about, he set about creating the world’s first known Nativity scene to help tell his people of The Nativity Story. It was created in a cave and near Greccio, Italy, and involved real people and animals, making it a living Nativity scene.
Today, nearly 800 years later, we still hear religious leaders echoing St. Francis’s words. The true message of Christmas is becoming lost; buried underneath layers of secular traditions. Yet at the same time, we also still see nativities everywhere come Christmas time.
While living Nativity scenes still exist today, much more popular are static versions that require no real people or animals. Some of the most famous Nativity scenes can be found at the Vatican, the White House, and in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
How Nativity Scenes Came to our Homes
Nativity scenes and sets as we know them today found their roots in the 1300’s. They started as display pieces for Italian churches. Often made out of terracotta, these early Nativity sets were displayed year round.
In the mid-1500’s, Nativity sets began to appear Not only in churches, but in the homes of wealthier citizens, even though some prominent religious groups in Italy at the time were attempting to move away from nativities altogether.
These are much smaller versions than the large statue found in churches. Instead of being constructed solely of terracotta, artisans began using wax and wood as well. They were also dressed in beautiful clothes.
Over the years, the nativities spread to practically all Christian countries, each region adding its own influence and unique style. Traditions were also developed in some countries, most notably in Central American and Mediterranean countries.
The home Nativity was picked up more than anybody by the Germans, where Catholic and Protestant families alike display them in their homes. It is still tradition in Germany to display all parts of the Nativity set with the exception of baby Jesus, who is only displayed after Christmas Eve, as before that time he is not yet been born. Most other regions, including America, do not follow this tradition.
Today’s Nativity Sets
Today, the typical Nativity set is made out of more modern materials, such as porcelain, ceramic, resin, and sometimes china, but some sets are still carved out of wood, or even a more expensive olive wood.
The basic nativity set should consist of at least five pieces. The stable, of course, is the setting. The manger where baby Jesus will rest, is placed front and center in the stable. This is because Jesus is the most significant piece in any Nativity set. Mary and Joseph are also prominent, but not as prominent. Mary is often placed right beside the manger, fondly looking over her son, while Joseph can either be placed on the other side of the manger looking down on Jesus, or slightly away from the manger looking away. Together, these five pieces, stable, manger, Christ child, Mary and Joseph, make a complete yet basic set.
In addition to the basic set, it is not uncommon to add the star of Bethlehem, the Angel Gabriel, the shepherds, the Wisemen, and various barn animals. Some nativity set creators, such as Fontanini, have hundreds of sets and figurines available, giving you endless opportunities to make your nativity scene truly unique.
Many people consider keeping a Nativity on display over the Christmas holidays is a great way to remind us all of the true message of Christmas. Nativity scenes can start out small, and become hobbies for families, where a new piece or pieces are added each year.