just wouldn't be Christmas if we didn't display Nativity scenes in our
homes and churches.
The Nativity Scene is, after all, central to all our other Christmas traditionscarols,
Christmas trees, lights, family gatherings, gift giving and midnight Mass.
Especially in today's materialistic world, we look to the Nativity scene
as a reminder of why we are celebrating.
Interest in celebrating the Nativity can be traced to a fourth century
church in Rome, Sancta Maria ad Praesepe. The Basilica of Santa Maria
Maggiore now occupies the site. A chapel in the original church supposedly
contained stones and relics from Jesus' birthplace in Bethlehem.
The tradition of using Nativity scenes is rooted in Greccio, Italy, where,
in 1223, St. Francis of Assisi created the first Nativity scene consisting
solely of a manger filled with hay, an ox, and a donkey. Historians believe
he may have been influenced by Nativity artwork that began appearing in
the twelfth century and by Mystery Plays, popular in the early thirteenth
century, that brought Biblical stories, including the Nativity, to life.
According to one of his biographers, St. Francis created the Nativity
scene because he wanted people to see firsthand what Jesus suffered at
birth for lack of housing. The people of Greccio gathered at the manger,
lit candles, and sang songs. St. Francis then used the manger as an altar
for Christmas Mass. There are some churches today that sponsor live Nativity
scenes, including real infants, and, as St. Francis anticipated, they
are quite moving.
During the next four centuries, the idea of the Nativity scene spread
to churches throughout Europe. It wasn't, however, until the seventeenth
century that Nativity scenes began appearing in the homes of the wealthy.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century Nativity scenes in Christian
homes became a tradition for families of all economic levels.
Today, many of us display Nativity scenes that have been passed down through
generations. These often spark the telling of stories, perhaps how the
three-legged sheep lost his leg or how great-grandma made the paper angel
that has hung for decades above the manger. When we pass these stories
along to the next generation, we share not only joy and love but also
lessons learned. Children, for example, learn that, like the three-legged
sheep, no one has to be perfect to be accepted in their family.
Those of us building new Nativity scenes keep the birth of Jesus in focus
all year as we look for something new to add. We treasure the artists'
work and look for nuances they incorporatethe awe on a child's face
or a shepherd's smile. We can pick up any piece and let it lead us into
a meditative experience with God.
Intimate Nativity scenes, consisting of only a few pieces centered on
the main characters, help remind us that God comes to each person and
wants an intimate one-on-one relationship. On the other hand, large Nativity
scenes, with many figures, some buildings, and maybe a painted backdrop,
remind us that Jesus came to call everyone, not just a few.
If we have the opportunity to view Nativity collections from all over
the world, we see Nativity scenes that are African, Filipino, Mexican,
Haitian, Native American, African American, European, and, well, of every
nationality and ethnic group. We are reminded that God comes to us in
every conceivable place and in many different shapes, sizes, ages, colors,
Regardless of how we observe the tradition of displaying Nativity scenes,
the purposecelebrating God coming to usremains the same.