A Christmas tradition for hundreds of years, the Nativity Scene has a rich history that spans across cultures and involves its share of controversy. Also known as the “crèche,” this decoration commonly found in homes across North America began in a much different state and time.
Almost 800 Years Ago…
The idea and creation of the first nativity scene is credited to St. Francis of Assisi. Back in 1223 Francis was stationed in Greccio, Italy after having returned from a trip to Acre and Egypt. The nativity had certainly been represented in art before, but never in the three dimensional form and for the purpose that Francis envisioned.
Setting up the scene in a nearby cave, Francis used live people and animals to create his initial vision. It was likely chaotic but quaint and must have served his purpose of focusing the local townsfolk on the Christian traditions of the holiday. Pope Honorius III blessed the depiction and the idea blossomed into a new Christmas tradition across the empire.
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. Elaborate, richly adorned figures sat within magnificent scenes in churches all over the land. And when the King of the Two Sicilies, Charles III, began to passionately collect these arrangements, the idea really took flight.
More Obscure Nativity Scenes
Every culture has nativity scenes with a different flavor, from Britain to the Orient and Spain. As residents put their own spin and national persona into the crèche, over time obscure nativity scenes and elements of the set up have become well known and almost essential.
Before the Puritans banned Christmas celebrations in England during the 1600’s, there was a charming tradition found in many households of every class. A mince pie was baked in the shape of a manger and a form of the Baby Jesus was placed on the pie until dinner time when families would enjoy a tasty feast. Many homes across North America today still enjoy mincemeat tarts or pies during the holidays, but this particular tradition fell from common practice when a Puritan law specifically banned the pies.
In the Orient you will find nativity scenes with a completely different feel. The manger is domed and animals are found much less often. Ornate colors and figures are the norm.
Catalonian tradition adds a surprising figure to the scene, often called el caganer. This strange little man is placed away from the manger, almost hiding as he squats. El caganer translates from Spanish as “the pooper,” and so his place far from the peaceful scene of the manger is understandable. The reason for this obscure figure is not known exactly, although many state he is simply tradition and others say he is a symbol of naturalism to anchor the heavenly story. A 2005 attempt to remove the figure from a nativity scene in Barcelona was met with protest and el caganer was returned to his proper place.
In Provence, a region in the south of France, artists highly trained in the creation of a santon meet to display their tiny figures that have been a traditional part of the manger scene since the French Revolution. Small, hand painted figures representing the common village folk and tradesmen were placed in or near the manger scene. Translated as “little saint,” these santon figures are still treasured and sought after in Provence and around the world.
Elements of the Nativity Scene
Although it varies widely from culture to culture, and artist to artist, the nativity scene has a few common elements. The baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph are at the center of this holiday display. Most often they are found in a barn setting, with a manger nearby for the baby.
Over time the ox and donkey have found their place in the scene and many sets have sheep that are scattered nearby. Some exotic sets include elephants and camels while others place any number of different animals in pairs around the manger scene, likely in reference to the Biblical account of Noah’s ark.
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. Figures and scenes are made from a variety of materials, from poly resin to clay, stone and cloth. Small sets are placed on a mantel or displayed inside and larger, more substantial pieces are set up in the yard. Outdora has a beautiful set of poly resin nativity figures that are richly decorated and highly durable for years of use.
Whether as a cultural or spiritual tradition, the nativity scene has a place of honor within your Christmas décor. Get into the spirit of the holidays with a custom that has lasted for centuries and enjoy the peaceful beauty of a crèche at your home.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Diana Dart was born into the patio design business. Working in her family contracting business for years, she’s now part owner and loves spending her time helping homeowners create an oasis in their backyards. She’s also published countless articles about gardening, curb appeal and landscaping online and in various print publications.