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The Christian Tradition of the Nativity Scene

by Lorena Bais

The gospel tell us, the city of Bethlehem was full of visitors who came to comply with the census issued by Emperor Augustus;  Therefore, inns would only provide shelter to those who had money. As Mary was pregnant they were allowed to stay in a stable where Jesus was born.

In some countries they are called Mangers or Nativities. The first Nativity was created in Italy.  It was St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order, the initiator of Nativity scenes between 1200 and 1226.

The tradition of Nativity scenes spread rapidly throughout Italy and then to the whole world and is now part of Christmas traditions of hundreds of countries around the world.

Nativity scenes traditions

According to tradition, the Saint toured the countryside near the small town of Rieti in the winter of 1223. That year, he was at the hermitage of Greccio for Christmas and it was there where he had the inspiration of reproducing the mystery of Jesus’ birth live. He built a straw house like a kind of portal, put a manger inside, brought an ox and a donkey from the locals and invited a small group of people to reproduce the scene of the shepherds’ worship.  Tradition has it that, miraculously, some angels appeared on the scene and baby Jesus, the Blessed Virgin and Saint Joseph, were personified.


The idea of ​​reproducing the birth quickly became very popular throughout the Christian world; and instead of living beings, the use of figurines started as the first missionaries to arrive in America were Franciscans and, they obviously followed Saint Francis of Assisi’s tradition.

Tradition also says that the first Nativity scene was built in Naples at the end of the 15th century and was made of clay figurines.  Carlos III ordered the “Nativity scenes” to be extended and popularized throughout the Italian and Spanish kingdom; In America, the friars introduced Christian Christmas customs using them for the evangelization of the natives, and among them, births take an important role.

Churches had their “nativity scenes” that priests and neighbours used for their solemn Christmas processions.  There was no family, however humble, that did not enjoy “assembling the Nativity scenes” next to which, carols were sang together.

The figurines of a “Nativity scene” can be of different sizes (even real size) and show the different scenes that Baby Jesus’s birth went through, from the search for the inn, the birth, the announcement of the Angel to the shepherds, the  adoration and offerings to the Baby by the locals and the scene of the three Wise Men, guided by a star, to Bethlehem’s portal.

The mystery of the Nativity represented in the manger was essential in every house.  This tradition has passed from parents to children as has the work done by artisans who, using the simplest materials create a magic that is not lost throughout the years.

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