Nativity Scene

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Nativity Scene

Bethlehem, Christmas Crib, Crèche, Krippe, Lapinha,

Manger Scene, Nacimiento, Pesebre, Portale, Presepio, Putz

Against the backdrop of a stable complete with straw and farm animals, figurines representing Mary and Joseph peer with wonder into the cradle where the newborn Jesus lies. Dolls representing the Three Kings, or Magi, approach with gifts, while shepherds kneel in adoration of the child. This recreation of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth is called a Nativity scene. Placed in churches, homes, or outdoor locations, Nativity scenes enhance worship or simply delight onlookers with beautiful representations of Christ's birth.


The earliest uses of a crib in worship date back to fourth-century Rome. Of the three masses observed at Christmas, one was called AdPraesepe (meaning "to the crib"). This mass took place in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, at a shrine built from boards believed to have come from the original stable of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Churches throughout Italy and Europe gradually adopted the custom of saying mass over a crib at Christmas time.

St. Francis of Assisi (c. 1181-1226) generally receives the credit for popularizing the Nativity scene as we know it. It is said that at Christmas time in 1224 he recreated the manger scene using real people and animals in a cave near the Italian village of Greccio. Mass was said in this novel setting and St. Francis preached about the humble birth of the newborn King. Onlookers enjoyed this reenactment of Christ's birth so much that the custom soon spread throughout Italy and Europe.

Reenactments of this sort still take place on Christmas Eve in some villages in the French region of Provence. Lengthy processions of costumed villagers solemnly file through the streets arriving finally at the manger of Christ's birth, where a living Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus await them. In the towns of Les Baux and Séguret hundreds of people walk in candlelit Christmas Eve processions that end in the local church where a mass is said.

Living Nativity scenes are also reenacted yearly in Italy. In Abruzzi, Italy, the village of Rivisondoli sponsors a procession and living Nativity scene on Epiphany Eve that involves up to 600 people. Many wear traditional regional costumes and are accompanied by animals as they make their pilgrimage to the manger. Worshipers may also bring gifts for the Holy Child, such as fruit, lambs, chickens, or pigs. The Magi, played by local officials, ride horses. The Virgin Mary rides a donkey and Joseph walks by her side. The procession ends at a manger within a cave and is followed by singing.

Early Nativity Scenes

The popularity of these living Nativity scenes gave rise to another custom: recreating the birth scene with figurines. By the sixteenth century many churches throughout Italy and Germany presented a Nativity scene of this type at Christmas time. Some French churches adopted the custom as well.

In the seventeenth century families began to create their own Nativity scenes. These became more elaborate with time. The art form reached spectacular heights in eighteenth-century Naples, Italy. Families competed with each other to produce the most elegant and elaborate crib scenes. These scenes expanded far beyond the manger to include village backdrops, ordinary villagers, ruined Roman temples, angels, and even foreigners whom the families thought might have rushed to Bethlehem had they known of the miraculous birth. (See also Christmas Village.)

Rich and noble Italian families employed established artists and sculptors to create clay or wood heads and shoulders. The artists then attached these heads to flexible bodies fashioned out of cloth, string, and wire. Costumes cut of rich fabrics, some embellished with jewels, adorned each figure. The splendor of the backdrops, however, vied with the exquisitely detailed props and figurines for the viewer's attention. Some settings included real waterfalls, while others featured gushing fountains or even an erupting Mount Vesuvius. Today many of these marvelous works are preserved and displayed in Italy's museums and churches.

The Nativity scene also rooted itself firmly in French soil, especially in the southern region of Provence. The first manger scenes included only those figures most related to the story of the Nativity: Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the shepherds, etc. In the eighteenth century, however, people began to display a multitude of characters in their home Nativity scenes. Some writers claim that Italian peddlers introduced these new figurines to southern France.

In 1803 small clay statuettes from Provence, called santons (or "little saints") appeared at the Christmas fair in Marseille. These santons became an essential element of the French Nativity scene. In addition to characters mentioned in the biblical accounts of the Nativity, the Provençal santons represented a wide variety of ordinary French townspeople, such as the baker, the mayor, the fishmonger, the village idiot, and others. One writer has identified many of these figures as stock characters in folk Nativity plays that circulated throughout the region as early as the Middle Ages. Like their Italian counterparts, French Nativity scenes depicted the birth of Christ taking place in a local setting, such as a village in Provence. French settlers brought the Christmas crib with them to Canada where another innovation occurred. The French Canadians of Quebec often set up their Nativity scenes under the Christmas tree.

Southern Europe

In southern Europe, where the Christmas tree never found much favor, home Christmas decoration focuses around the Nativity scene. The Spanish call the scene a nacimiento (meaning "birth") or a belén (meaning "Bethlehem"), the Italians call it a presépio (meaning "crib"), and the French call it a crèche (meaning "crib"). In the same way that many North Americans collect Christmas tree ornaments, many southern European families slowly build a treasured collection of Nativity figurines. Though the scene itself may be assembled beforehand, many await Christmas Eve or Christmas morning to place the baby Jesus in his crib. Some civic and church celebrations also center on manger scenes. In Spain Nativity scenes may be found in public plazas. On Epiphany several local men dressed as the Three Kings may visit the public Nativity scene, reenacting the adoration of the Magi.

In Italy Nativity scenes pop up everywhere in the weeks before Christmas. Shop windows display manger scenes made out of pastry, bread, fruit, seeds, shells, and even butter. Children make Nativity scenes out of cardboard or papier mâché. Many churches present crib scenes as well. The Basilica of Saints Cosmos and Damian in Rome houses one of the most famous. Twenty-seven-feet high, forty-five-feet long, and twenty-one-feet wide, it contains several hundred hand-sculpted wooden statues. Rome's Church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli exhibits the most famous Christ child, however. An old custom encourages children to recite carefully memorized sermons in front of his crib. Folk beliefs credit the jewel-studded golden infant, known as "Santo Bambino," with the power to heal.

Latin America

Spanish colonizers brought the Nativity scene with them to the Americas. The Nativity scene enjoys widespread popularity throughout Latin America today, where it is known as a nacimiento, pesebre, portale, or in Portuguese-speaking Brazil, as a presepio or lapinha. Latin American manger scenes range from simple representations of the Holy Family to elaborate depictions of the manger, village, and surrounding countryside. This countryside may host characters more likely to be found in rural South America than in ancient Judea, including women making tortillas, Indians selling tropical fruit, and peasants leading heavily laden burros. The figurines themselves range from relatively crude clay representations to delicate antique figurines passed down from previous generations. In Mexico many families set up their Nativity scenes on December 16, a date that corresponds with the beginning of the nine-day Christmas novena.

Many Latin American families place the Jesus figurine in his cradle on Christmas Eve. The Magi, on the other hand, inch forward daily towards the manger, arriving on January 6, Epiphany. Throughout Latin America Nativity scenes may also be found in churches and public squares. Many of these traditions can also be found throughout the American Southwest, a region of the United States with a long history of Spanish and Mexican settlement.

Central Europe

In Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and other central European countries, the preparation of Nativity scenes still provides a delightful occupation for children and adults during Advent. The German Nativity scene, called a Krippe (meaning "crib"), may contain hundreds of figurines and many lovely details. In Czechoslovakia people call their manger scenes "Bethlehems." In some areas of the country the figures may be constructed from bread dough and later painted.

The United States

In the eighteenth century German Moravian immigrants brought this custom with them to the United States. The Moravian Nativity scenes, called putz (from the German word for "decorate"), spread out in extravagant detail. Dozens or hundreds of figurines might be placed amidst gardens, fountains, arbors, villages, streams, bridges, waterfalls, and other delightful scenery. These elaborate designs might take up an entire room. In Pennsylvania many German Americans, particularly those in areas settled by Moravians, maintain the custom of "putzing" and "putz-visiting." The town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, founded by Moravians, builds a community putz every year. On one occasion the builders used 800 pounds of sand, 64 tree stumps, 12 bushels of moss, 40 evergreen trees, and 48 angels in the creation of the community putz. In past years many towns throughout the United States erected Nativity scenes at Christmas time. Recently these displays have provoked controversy. Questions regarding the separation of church and state, as well as vandalism, have led many towns to abolish public Nativity scenes. Nevertheless, many families and churches continue to enjoy this old Christmas custom.

Further Reading

Christmas in Mexico. Chicago: World Book, 1976. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin, eds. The Folklore of AmericanHolidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1987. Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. Foley, Daniel J. Christmas the World Over. Philadelphia, Pa.: Chilton Books, 1963. ---. Little Saints of Christmas. Boston, Mass.: Dresser, Chapman and Grimes, 1959. Milne, Jean. Fiesta Time in Latin America. Los Angeles, Calif.: Ward Ritchie Press, 1965. Ross, Corinne. Christmas in France. Lincolnwood, Ill.: Passport Books, 1991. ---. Christmas in Italy. World Book-Childcraft International, 1979. Shoemaker, Alfred L. Christmas in Pennsylvania. Kutztown, Pa.: Pennsylvania Folklore Society, 1959. Stevens, Patricia Bunning. Merry Christmas!: A History of the Holiday. New York: Macmillan, 1979. Thompson, Sue Ellen, ed. Holiday Symbols. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1998. Weiser, Francis X. The Christmas Book. 1952. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990.

Web Sites

A site sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture and Canadian Heritage:

A site sponsored by the "Creche Herald" newsletter: ~bocassoc
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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