A History of the Nativity Scene

A common scene throughout American homes and towns during the Christmas season is the nativity scene, or crèche. Many families have a small nativity inside their home, while others may have a larger, more elaborate scene in their yard. Some churches may even have a live nativity with real people and animals. Maybe surprisingly, this reflects back on the original nativity scenes, begun 800 years ago.

The first nativity scene originated with St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 and was actually a live nativity scene. St. Francis placed his actors and animals in a cave in hopes that this would help to focus the people of the town on the true meaning of the holiday. It was a huge hit, and soon live nativities could be seen throughout the Roman Empire each Christmas season.

For the next century, live nativities were found in churches during this time of the year, but practicality eventually won out. Most live nativities were replaced with carved nativities or other art forms. This is what we most commonly think of today when someone mentions a nativity.

Although we Americans often picture the nativity looking a certain way—manger, wise men, donkeys, sheep, and maybe some camels—different cultures actually have very different nativity scenes, although all contain baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Oriental crèches often have a domed manger and rarely have animals. French nativities are likely to have a plethora of townsfolk among the shepherds. And many cultures keep the wise men out of the nativity scene until after Christmas has passed. After Christmas the wise men then enter the picture—a more historically accurate representation of the nativity.

Unfortunately, this beautiful tradition has seen some controversy in recent decades after hundreds of years of being accepted and embraced. Schools and cities have now banned nativities in public areas in the name of separation of church and state. School “holiday” or “winter” band and choir concerts must contain an equal amount of secular songs to balance out the overtly religious Christmas carols. However, Menorahs or Islamic crescents are often allowed in schools and other public places because of their cultural (not just religious) importance, but nativities are seen as purely religious, and rightly so. From its very beginning, the nativity scene was meant to point people to Jesus and the real meaning of Christmas. May it continue to do so today.