Where did the Nativity scene come from?

December 22, 2011

Faith and Reasons

If you’ve set up a Nativity scene in your home, maybe the “supporting characters” you’ve arranged in the stable are waiting for you to lay the Star of the show–the baby Jesus–in the manger on Christmas Eve. Whether it’s under your tree, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand or full of lights in your yard, a movable model of the Incarnation not only completes the Christmas decor, but offers a tangible means for reflecting on the source of our joy this season.

The number of Nativity scenes seems to be limited only by the imagination. As I started seeing the familiar figures, Mary Joseph, Jesus, the Wisemen … in different settings, I wondered about the origin of these scenes which are so much a part of our holy celebration.

Known as a creche in French or presepio in Italian, the Nativity scene represents a combination of passages from Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. Scripture says nothing about the shepherds, the Magi and the animals all gathered together at the same time with the Holy Family.

The first Nativity scene

But Christians began depicting the Nativity this way as early the 2nd century with frescos in the Roman catacombs.

In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi created the first living Nativity scene in a cave near Greccio, Italy, at midnight Mass in an effort to make Christmas more meaningful for the townspeople. The scene contained the manger and live animals but not the figure of Mary, Joseph or Jesus.

St. Bonaventure writes about the event in his biography of St. Francis:

Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was changed by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King, and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.

It is said that miracles occurred after St. Francis’ Nativity scene, including a vision of the Christ child in the manger and healing properties of the hay used in the scene.

The first stationary Nativity scene was crafted in marble about 65 years after St. Francis’ midnight scene. Others were constructed in wood, terracotta or stone. After the Middle Ages Nativity scenes could be found in most Catholic churches.

Many Nativity scene traditions

Different countries developed their own traditions. Small hand-painted terracotta figures called santons are popular in Provence, France. In southern Germany, Austria and northern Italy figurines are hand-cut in wood. Polish szopka incorporate a historical building into the scenes. The English had the most unusual custom of baking a mince pie in the shape of a manger to hold the Christ child until dinnertime when they would eat the pie.

Some traditions place Adam, Eve and the serpent; Noah and his animals or other biblical figures in the scene. Others depict events such as Mary washing diapers in the Jordan river, or a dove descending on the baby Jesus.

Whatever our own Nativity scenes look like, large or small, they remind us daily what the season is about–Christ who came as a baby to save us.

A great way to enter into Christmas is to view Father Jerry Dvorak’s collection of 275 creches displayed until Jan. 29 at the Church of St. Peter at 6730 Nicollet Ave. S. in Richfield. Viewing hours are 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday* and after all weekend Masses.

*St. Peter’s building won’t be open Dec. 23, 26, 30 and Jan. 2.

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About Susan Klemond

I'm a freelance writer who enjoys writing about the Catholic Faith, local issues and people. I love the challenge of learning about the Church and discovering the reasons behind her teachings.

View all posts by Susan Klemond
  • Kathyschneeman

    Thank you Susan. I loved the St. Bonaventure quote about St. Francis; I hadn’t read that before.

    We have a traditional creche out, but we also have a life-size manger under our tree. It was made by my husband and four of our sons. They crafted it one year for our daughter, Mary, who wanted a Baby Jesus doll for Christmas. Now, this trough and the doll are part of our decorations every Advent, and we use them in the pageant each Christmas Eve.

    Merry Christmas!

    • Faithandreasonsblog

      Thank you, Kathy. Thank you for sharing about your family’s nativity scenes. They are so special to us, aren’t they? I have a small set with painted clay figures and another that family members made for me out of wood. They help me enter into the season.
      Merry Christmas to you!