Blog by Linda Wallace
A nativity scene is a depiction of the birth of Jesus as described in the gospels. Nativity scenes exhibit figures representing the infant Jesus, his mother Mary, and Joseph. Other characters from the nativity story such as shepherds, the Magi, and angels may be displayed near the manger in a barn intended to accommodate farm animals. A donkey and an ox are typically depicted in the scene, as well as camels belonging to the Magi.
Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 , having been inspired by his recent visit to the Holy Land where he had been shown Jesus’s traditional birthplace. The scene’s popularity inspired communities throughout Catholic countries to stage similar pantomimes. Up until Francis set up the first nativity scene in 1223, people celebrated Christmas primarily by going to Mass (a worship service) at church, where priests would tell the Christmas story in a language that most ordinary people didn’t speak: Latin. Although churches sometimes featured fancy artistic renditions of Christ as an infant, they didn’t present any realistic manger scenes. Francis decided that he wanted to make the extraordinary experiences of the first Christmas more accessible to ordinary people. The scene, which was set up in a cave just outside Greccio, featured a wax figure of the infant Jesus, costumed people playing the roles of Mary and Joseph, and a live donkey and ox that had been loaned to Francis. The first nativity scene presentation proved to be so popular that people in other areas soon set up living nativities to celebrate Christmas. Eventually, Christians worldwide celebrated Christmas by visiting living nativity scenes and praying at nativity scenes made of statues in their town squares, churches and homes.
Throughout the next century the tradition of setting up a live nativity scene in the church became part of holiday celebrations. It was expected. But after a time the idea to use static forms in place of live beings was seen as more practical.
The three wise men are very often shown in traditional nativity scenes, bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby. Some cultures place the three wise men or three kings into the scene after December 25th, but North American tradition gathers all of the figures together at one time.
Shepherds, angels and the Christmas star are also found in many different nativity sets. Small sets are placed on a mantel or displayed inside and larger, more substantial pieces are set up in the yard.