Birth of Jesus
A nativity scene takes its inspiration from the accounts of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Luke’s narrative describes an angel announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds who then visit the humble site where Jesus is found in a manger. Matthew’s narrative tells of Magi who follow a star to the place where Jesus dwells, and indicates that the Magi found Jesus around two years after his birth rather than on the exact day. Matthew’s account does not mention the angels and shepherds, while Luke’s narrative is silent on the Magi and the star. With no basis in scripture, however, three dimensional nativity scenes (whether static or living) usually bring the shepherds and the angels of Luke together at the manger with Matthew’s Magi and the star. Further, and without scriptural basis, the ox and the ass are present at the manger as well as other animals such as sheep, goats, and camels.
Origins and early history
St. Francis at Greccio by Giotto
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 at Greccio, Italy, in an attempt to place the emphasis of Christmas upon the worship of Christ rather than upon secular materialism and gift giving. Staged in a cave near Greccio, St. Francis’ nativity scene was a living one with humans and animals cast in the Biblical roles. Pope Honorius III gave his blessing to the exhibit. Such pantomimes became hugely popular and spread throughout Christendom. Within a hundred years every church in Italy was expected to have a nativity scene at Christmastime. Eventually, statues replaced human and animal participants, and static scenes grew to elaborate affairs with richly robed figurines placed in intricate landscape settings. Charles III, King of the Two Sicilies, collected such elaborate scenes, and his enthusiasm encouraged others to do the same.
A tradition in England, United Kingdom involved baking a mince pie in the shape of a manger to hold the Christ child until dinnertime when the pie was eaten. When the Puritans banned Christmas celebrations in the seventeenth century, they also passed specific legislation to outlaw such pies, calling them “Idolaterie in crust”.
Static nativity scenes
Whimsical rubber ducky set featuring the Magi, a lamb, and the Holy Family
A static nativity scene is erected in homes and churches during the Christmas season, and is composed of figurines depicting the infant Jesus resting in a manger, Mary, and Joseph. Other figures in the scene may include angels, shepherds, and animals. The figures may be made of any material, and arranged in a stable or cave. The Magi may also appear, and are sometimes not placed in the scene until the week following Christmas to account for their travel time to the event. After World War I, large, lighted manger scenes in churches and public buildings grew in popularity, and, by the 1950s, many companies were selling lawn ornaments of non-fading, long-lasting, weather resistant materials telling the nativity story. While most home nativity scenes are packed away at Christmas or shortly thereafter, nativity scenes in churches usually remain on display until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
Variants on the standard nativity scene are many and include ethnic dioramas. In Colombia, for example, the pesebre may feature a town and its surrounding countryside with shepherds and animals. Mary and Joseph are often depicted as rural Boyac people with Mary clad in a countrywoman’s shawl and fedora hat, and Joseph garbed in a poncho. The infant Jesus is depicted as European with Italianate features. Visitors bringing gifts to the Christ child are depicted as Colombian natives.
The traditional nativity scene has never been an attempt to accurately depict a gospel event. With no basis in the gospels, for example, the shepherds, the Magi, and the ox and ass are displayed together at the manger. Some traditions bring other scriptural characters to the nativity scene such as Adam and Eve and the serpent, Noah and his animals, the twelve sons of Jacob, the twelve prophets and the twelve apostles. Mundane activities such as Mary washing diapers in the River Jordan, or a dove descending on the newborn infant may be depicted.
Living nativity scenes
Living nativity at St. Wojciech Church, Wyszkw, Poland, 2006
Living nativity in Sicily, which also contains a mock rural 19th-century village. A young artisan is drawing water from an authentically reconstructed fountain
Pantomimes similar to the scene staged by St. Francis at Greccio became an annual event throughout Christendom. Abuses and exaggerations in the presentation of mystery plays during the Middles Ages, however, forced the church to prohibit performances during the fifteenth century. The plays survived outside church walls, however, and three hundred years after the prohibition, German immigrants brought simple forms of the nativity play to America. Some features of the dramas became part of both Catholic and Protestant Christmas services with children often taking the parts of characters in the nativity story. Nativity plays and pageants, culminating in living nativity scenes, eventually entered public schools. Today, such exhibitions are challenged on the grounds of separation of church and state.
In some countries, the nativity scene took to the streets with human performers costumed as Joseph and Mary traveling from house to house seeking shelter and being told by the houses’ occupants to move on. The couple’s journey culminated in an outdoor tableau at a designated place with the shepherds and the Magi then traveling the streets in parade fashion looking for the Christ child.
Living nativity scenes are not without their problems. In 2008, for example, vandals destroyed all eight scenes and backdrops at Mount Carmel Christian Church drive-through living nativity scene in Georgia. About 120 of the church 500 members were involved in the construction of the scenes or playing roles in the production. The damage was estimated at more than US,000. Additionally, the use of real animals in living nativity scenes has provoked complaint.
In southern Italy, especially Sicily, living nativity scenes (called presepe vivente in Italian), are extremely popular, and are rather elaborate affairs, which feature the classic nativity scene as well as a mock rural 19th-century village, complete with artisans in traditional costumes working at their particular trades. These attract many visitors and have been televised by Italy’s national station Rai.
Animals in nativity scenes
With no basis in the canonical narratives of the birth of Jesus, an ox and ass are usually part of the nativity scene. The tradition may arise from an extracanonical text, the Pseudo-Matthew gospel of the eighth century:
“And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, Mary went out of the cave, and, entering a stable, placed the child in a manger, and an ox and an ass adored him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by the prophet Isaiah, “The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib.” Therefore, the animals, the ox and the ass, with him in their midst incessantly adored him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Habakkuk the prophet, saying, “Between two animals you are made manifest.”
The ox, the ass, and the infant Jesus in one of the earliest depictions of the nativity, (Ancient Roman Christian sarcophagus, 4th century)
Considerable symbolism is attached to the ox and the ass. The ox traditionally represents patience, the nation of Israel, and Old Testament sacrificial worship while the ass represents humility, readiness to serve, and the Gentiles.
The ox and the ass, as well as other animals, became a part of nativity scene tradition. In a 1415 ,Corpus Christi celebration, the Ordo paginarum notes that Jesus was lying between an ox and an ass. Other animals introduced to nativity scenes include elephants and camels.
By the 1970s, churches and other communities began using zoo animals in their nativity pageants in an attempt to create some authenticity. “Drive-by” or “drive-through” scenes with rented animals such as sheep and donkeys have become popular in California with walking tours also available at outdoor nativities.
Some complaint surrounds the use of live animals in nativity scenes. In 2008, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) noted the animals in living nativity scenes lacked adequate exercise and space, suffered exposure to temperature extremes, and were transported to and from displays by substandard means. Tragedies involving animals were noted by PETA, including the rape of a sheep in a West Virginia nativity display, and the death of a donkey in Richmond, Virginia traffic after dogs chased the animal into the road. PETA recommended churches and other organizations promoting live nativity displays spend their funds on relieving the plight of the poor rather renting animals for such displays, and suggested that children dressed as animals participate in such scenes as the humane alternative.
Selection of distinctive scenes
Vatican nativity scenes
In 1982, Pope John Paul II inaugurated the annual tradition of placing a nativity scene on display in the Vatican City in the Piazza San Pietro before the Christmas Tree.
In 2006, the nativity scene featured seventeen new figures of spruce on loan to the Vatican from sculptors and wood sawyers of the town of Tesero, Italy in the Italian Alps. The figures included peasants, a flutist, a bagpipe player and a shepherd named Titaoca. Twelve nativity scenes created before
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