Nativity scene

Nativity scene
An elaborate Neapolitan presepio

A nativity scene, manger scene, krippe, crèche, or crib, is a depiction of the birth of Jesus as described in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. While the term "nativity scene" typically includes two dimensional depictions in film, painting, printmaking, and other media, in the history of art and culture, as well as in popular use, the term refers to static, three dimensional, artistic, commercial or folk art dioramas, or pantomimes called "living nativity scenes" in which real humans and animals participate. 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 or stable.

Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 (a "living" one) intending thereby to cultivate the worship of Christ, 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 Christendom to stage similar pantomimes; eventually, the nativity scene became an archetype in Western culture, inspiring an infinite number of works of high and popular art. More and more elaborate static exhibitions were created with wax and ivory figurines garbed in rich fabrics set against intricate landscapes. These elaborate scenes reached their artistic apogee in the Kingdom of Naples in the 16th to 18th centuries. Elsewhere, the emphasis was on realism.

Living nativity at St. Wojciech Church, Wyszków, Poland, 2006

Distinctive nativity scenes and traditions have been created around the world and are displayed during the Christmas season in churches, homes, shopping malls, and other venues, and occasionally on public lands and in public buildings. The Vatican has displayed a scene in St. Peter's Square near its Christmas tree since 1982 and the Pope has for many years blessed the mangers of children assembled in St. Peter's Square for a special ceremony. Folk art traditions in Europe include the hand-painted santons of France and the colorful szopka of Poland. In the United States, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City annually displays a Neapolitan Baroque nativity scene before a twenty-foot blue spruce.

Nativity scenes have not escaped controversy. A life-sized scene in the United Kingdom featuring waxworks celebrities provoked outrage in 2004, and, in Spain, a city council forbade the exhibition of a traditional toilet humor character in a public nativity scene. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) indicates that animals in living displays lack proper care and suffer abuse. In the United States, nativity scenes on public lands and in public buildings have provoked court challenges, and the prankish theft of ceramic or plastic nativity figurines from outdoor displays has become commonplace.


Birth of Jesus

German paper nativity scene, 1885

A nativity scene takes its inspiration from the accounts of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.[1][2] Luke's narrative describes an angel announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds who then visit the humble site where Jesus is found lying in a manger, a trough for cattle feed.(Luke 2:8-20) Matthew's narrative tells of "wise men" (grk.μαγοι magoi) who follow a star to the house where Jesus dwelt, and indicates that the Magi found Jesus some time later, less than two years after his birth, rather than on the exact day.(Mat.2:1-23) Matthew's account does not mention the angels and shepherds, while Luke's narrative is silent on the Magi and the star. The Magi and the angels are often displayed in a nativity scene with the Holy Family and the shepherds although there is no scriptural basis for their presence.(Luke 2:7;2:12;2:17)

Origins and early history

St. Francis at Greccio by Giotto

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene[3][4] in 1223 at Greccio, Italy,[3][5] in an attempt to place the emphasis of Christmas upon the worship of Christ rather than upon secular materialism and gift giving.[6][7] Staged in a cave near Greccio, St. Francis' nativity scene was a living one[3] with humans and animals cast in the Biblical roles.[8] Pope Honorius III gave his blessing to the exhibit.[9] Such pantomimes became hugely popular and spread throughout Christendom.[8] Within a hundred years every church in Italy was expected to have a nativity scene at Christmastime.[5] Eventually, statues replaced human and animal participants, and static scenes grew to elaborate affairs with richly robed figurines placed in intricate landscape settings.[8] Charles III, King of the Two Sicilies, collected such elaborate scenes, and his enthusiasm encouraged others to do the same.[5]

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 17th century, they also passed specific legislation to outlaw such pies, calling them "Idolaterie in crust".[5]


Static nativity scenes

Exhibition of several nativity scenes

A static nativity scene may be erected indoors or outdoors 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 various animals. The figures may be made of any material,[3] and arranged in a stable or grotto. 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 Bethlehem.[10] 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.[3]

Outdoor nativity scene of life-sized figurines in Barcelona (2009)

The nativity scene may not accurately reflect gospel events. With no basis in the gospels, for example, the shepherds, the Magi, and the ox and ass may be 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. The art form can be traced back to eighteenth-century Naples, Italy.[2] Families competed with each other to produce the most elegant and elaborate scenes. These scenes expanded far beyond the manger to include village backdrops, merchants, artisans, soldiers, even local notables.[11]

Peruvian crucifix with nativity scene at its base, c.1960

Regional variants on the standard nativity scene are many. The putz of Pennsylvania Dutch Americans evolved into elaborate decorative Christmas villages in the twentieth century. In Colombia, the pesebre may feature a town and its surrounding countryside with shepherds and animals. Mary and Joseph are often depicted as rural Boyacá 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.[12] 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.[13]

Living nativity scenes

Living nativity in Sicily, which also contains a mock rural 19th-century village

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 15th century.[3] 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. Such exhibitions have been challenged on the grounds of separation of church and state.[3]

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.[13]

Living nativity in Bascara

Living nativity scenes are not without their problems. In 2008, for example, vandals destroyed all eight scenes and backdrops at Mount Carmel Christian Church’s drive-through living nativity scene in Georgia. About 120 of the church’s 500 members were involved in the construction of the scenes or playing roles in the production. The damage was estimated at more than US$2,000.[14] 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

The ox, the ass, and the infant Jesus in one of the earliest depictions of the nativity, (Ancient Roman Christian sarcophagus, 4th century)

With no basis in the canonical narratives of the birth of Jesus, an ox and ass are usually part of the nativity scene.[15] The tradition may arise from an extracanonical text, the Pseudo-Matthew gospel of the 8th 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."[15]

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.[16]

Living scene in Germany

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.[17] Other animals introduced to nativity scenes include elephants and camels.[10]

By the 1970s, churches and community organizations increasingly included animals in nativity pageants.[13] Since then, automobile-accessible "drive-through" scenes with sheep and donkeys have become popular.[18]

The use of real animals by inexperienced volunteers has engendered complaints. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) points out that animals in some living nativity scenes have suffered inadequate care, abuses including beating and sexual violation, and death in traffic mishaps. PETA recommends humane alternatives that include children costumed as animals replacing real animals.[19]

Selection of distinctive scenes

Vatican nativity scenes

In 1982, Pope John Paul II inaugurated the annual tradition[20] of placing a nativity scene on display in the Vatican City in the Piazza San Pietro before the Christmas Tree.[21]

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.[22] The figures included peasants, a flutist, a bagpipe player and a shepherd named Titaoca.[22] Twelve nativity scenes created before 1800 from Tesero were put on display in the Vatican audience hall.[22]

St. Peter's Square

The Vatican nativity scene for 2007 placed the birth of Jesus in Joseph's house in Nazareth (rather than in Bethlehem), based upon an interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew.[20] Mary was shown with the newborn infant Jesus in a room in Joseph's house. To the left of the room was Joseph's workshop while to the right was a busy inn—a comment on materialism versus spirituality.[23] The Vatican's written description of the diorama said, "The scene for this year's Nativity recalls the painting style of the Flemish School of the 1500s."[24] The scene was unveiled on December 24 and remained in place until February 2, 2008 for The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.[25] Ten new figures were exhibited with seven on loan from the town of Tesero and three—a baker, a woman, and a child—donated to the Vatican.[25] The decision for the atypical setting was believed to be part of a crackdown on fanciful scenes erected in various cities around Italy.[20] In Naples, Italy, for example, Elvis Presley and Prime Minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi, were depicted among the shepherds and angels worshipping at the manger.[20]

In 2008, the province of Trento, Italy provided sculpted wooden figures and animals as well as utensils to create depictions of daily life.[26] The scene featured seventeen figures[26] with nine depicting the Holy Family, the Magi, and the shepherds.[27] The nine figures were originally donated by Saint Vincent Pallotti for the nativity at Rome's Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle in 1842[26] and eventually found their way to the Vatican. They are dressed anew each year for the scene.[27] The 2008 scene was set in Bethlehem with a fountain and a hearth representing regeneration and light.[28] The same year, the Vatican's Paul VI Hall exhibited a nativity designed by Mexican artists.[26]

Since 1968, the Pope has officiated at a special ceremony in St. Peter's Square on the last Sunday before Christmas that involves blessing hundreds of mangers and Babies Jesus for the children of Rome, Italy.[9] In 1978, 50,000 schoolchildren attended the ceremony.[9]


A santon produce seller

A santon (Provençal: "little saint") is a small hand-painted, terracotta nativity scene figurine produced in the Provence region of southeastern France.[29] In a traditional Provençal créche, the santons represent various characters from Provençal village life such as the scissors grinder, the fishwife, and the chestnut seller.[29] The figurines were first created during the French Revolution when churches were forcibly closed and large nativity scenes prohibited.[30] Today, their production is a family affair passed from parents to children.[31] During the Christmas season, santon makers gather in Marseille and other locales in southeastern France to display and sell their wares.[30]

Kraków szopka

Szopka in Krakow

Szopka are traditional Polish nativity scenes dating to 13th century Kraków, Poland.[32] Their modern construction incorporates elements of Krakow's historic architecture including Gothic spires, Renaissance facades, and Baroque domes,[32] and utilizes everyday materials such as colored tinfoils, cardboard, and wood.[33] Some are mechanized.[34] Prizes are awarded for the most elaborately designed and decorated pieces[32] in an annual competition held in Kraków's main square beside the statue of Adam Mickiewicz.[34] Some of the best are then displayed in Kraków's Museum of History.[35] Szopka were traditionally carried from door-to-door in the nativity plays (Jaselka) by performing groups.[36]

A similar tradition, called "betlehemezés" and involving schoolchildren carrying portable folk-art nativity scenes door-to-door, chanting traditional texts, is part of Hungarian folk culture, and has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. An example of such a portable wooden nativity scene is on display at the Nativity Museum in Bethlehem.

Three nativity scenes in the United States

White House nativity scene, 2008

In 2005, President of the United States of America, George W. Bush and his wife, First Lady of the United States, Laura Bush displayed an 18th century Italian presepio in the East Room of the White House, Washington, D.C., United States. The presepio was donated to the White House in the last decades of the 20th century.[37]

On her Christmas Day 2007 television show, Martha Stewart exhibited the nativity scene she sculpted in pottery class at the Alderson Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, West Virginia while serving a 2005 sentence. She remarked, "Even though every inmate was only allowed to do one a month, and I was only there for five months, I begged because I said I was an expert potter—ceramicist actually—and could I please make the entire nativity scene."[38] She supplemented her nativity figurines on the show with tiny artificial palm trees imported from Germany.[38]

Perhaps the best known nativity scene in America is the Neapolitan Baroque Crèche displayed annually in the Medieval Sculpture Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Its backdrop is a 1763 choir screen from the Cathedral of Valladolid and a twenty-foot blue spruce decorated with a host of 18th-century angels. The nativity figures are placed at the tree's base. The crèche was the gift of Loretta Hines Howard in 1964, and the choir screen was the gift of The William Randolph Hearst Foundation in 1956.[39]


Bethlehem Live is an all-volunteer living nativity produced by Gateway Christian Community Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The production includes a reconstruction of the ancient town of Bethlehem and seven individual vignettes.[40][41]


United States of America

Nativity scenes have been involved in controversies and lawsuits.[42] In federal court pleadings in the United States, for example, the New York City, school system defended its ban on nativity scenes by claiming the historicity of the birth of Jesus was not actual fact. The judge in the case upheld the ban, noting that the ban on nativity scenes is not discriminatory while permitting Jewish menorahs and Islamic star and crescent displays because the latter two have secular components while nativity scenes are supposed to be purely religious.[43] In another instance, a suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, school banned a nativity scene while permitting a menorah display. The school's principal stated, "Judaism is not just a religion, it's a culture."[43]

A static outdoor nativity scene in the United States, (Christkindlmarket, Chicago, Illinois)

In 1969, the American Civil Liberties Union (representing three clergymen, an atheist, and a leader of the American Ethical Society), tried to block the construction of a nativity scene on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C.[44] When the ACLU claimed the government sponsorship of a distinctly Christian symbol violated separation of church and state,[44] the sponsors of the fifty-year-old Christmas celebration, Pageant of Peace, who had an exclusive permit from the Interior Department for all events on the Ellipse, responded that the nativity scene was a reminder of America's spiritual heritage.[44] The United States Court of Appeals ruled on December 12, 1969, that the crèche be allowed that year.[44] The case continued until September 26, 1973, when the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs[44] and found the involvement of the Interior Department and the National Park Service in the Pageant of Peace amounted to government support for religion.[44] The court opined that the nativity scene should be dropped from the pageant or the government end its participation in the event in order to avoid "excessive entanglements" between government and religion.[44] In 1973, the nativity scene vanished.[44]

Nativity scenes are permitted on public lands in the United States as long as equal time is given to non-religious symbols.

In 1985, the United States Supreme Court ruled in ACLU v. Scarsdale, New York that nativity scenes on public lands violate separation of church and state statutes unless they comply with "The Reindeer Rule"—a regulation calling for equal opportunity for non-religious symbols, such as reindeer.[45]

In 1994, the Christmas in the Park Board of San Jose, California, removed a statue of the infant Jesus from Plaza de Cesar Chavez Park and replaced it with a statue of the plumed Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl, commissioned with US$500,000 of public funds. In response, protestors staged a living nativity scene in the park.[45]

In 2006, a lawsuit was brought against the state of Washington when it permitted a public display of a "holiday" tree and a menorah but not a nativity scene.[46] Because of the lawsuit, the decision was made to permit a nativity scene to be displayed in the rotunda of the state Capitol, in Olympia.[46]

Byron Babione, a senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian group in the United States, led the legal battle to display the scene after a private citizen was denied permission to erect the scene. Babione said:

It's incredible to think that Americans have to think twice about whether it is okay to celebrate Christmas in public. Just as it is constitutional for officials to display a menorah and a holiday tree, it is also constitutional to include a Nativity scene... Ninety-five percent of Americans celebrate Christmas. In light of that fact, the inclusion of a Nativity scene by a private citizen is entirely appropriate. More importantly, it does not violate any facet of the law. In fact, the state capitol rotunda is open for displays and exhibits during the holiday season. The state cannot bar a Christmas Nativity because of its religious viewpoint and allow other displays like a menorah and [a] 'holiday tree.'"[46]

Baby Jesus theft

In the United States, nativity figurines are sometimes stolen from outdoor public and private displays during the Christmas season[47] in an act that is generally called Baby Jesus theft. The thefts are usually pranks with figurines recovered within a few hours or days of their disappearances.[48] Some have been damaged beyond repair or defaced with profanity or Satanic symbols.[49][50] It is unclear if Baby Jesus theft is on the rise as United States federal law enforcement officials do not track such theft.[48] Some communities protect outdoor nativity scenes with surveillance cameras or GPS devices concealed within the figurines.[49] Some wonder if an Anti-Christian sentiment lurks behind the thefts.[49]

United Kingdom

In December 2004, Madame Tussaud's London, England, United Kingdom nativity scene featured waxwork models of soccer star David Beckham and his wife Victoria Beckham as Joseph and Mary, and Kylie Minogue as the Angel.[51] Tony Blair, George W. Bush, and the Duke of Edinburgh were cast as the Magi while actors Hugh Grant, Samuel L. Jackson, and comedian Graham Norton were cast as shepherds.[52] The celebrities were chosen for the roles by 300 people who visited the Madame Tussaud's in October 2004 and voted on the display. The Archbishop of Canterbury was not impressed, and a Vatican spokesperson said the display was in very poor taste. Other officials reacted angrily, with one noting it was "a nativity stunt too far".[52] "We're sorry if we have offended people," said Diane Moon, a spokesperson for the museum. She said the display was intended in the spirit of fun.[53]


El caganer

In 2005, the city council of Barcelona, Spain commissioned a nativity scene which did not include the region's traditional nativity figure, el caganer, a red-capped defecating character which is not a part of the nativity narrative but simply an expression of the irreverent scatological humour of southwestern Europe.[54] The council claimed the character set a bad example as sanitation laws against public elimination had recently been passed.[55] The council's decision was viewed as an attack on Catalonian tradition, and, following a campaign against it, el caganer was restored to the nativity scene in 2006. In addition to the traditional caganer, other characters have appeared assuming the caganer position. In 2008, a "pooper" of Barack Obama was made available just days after his election as the President of the United States of America.[56]


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