Nativity sets of the world

“And she bought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.”

In Germany, it’s called a Weihnachtskrippe.  Spaniards know it as a naciamento. Italians say presepio; for the French, it’s a crèche. Since that starry night in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, the celebration of Christmas has almost always included some scenic tribute to the Nativity. From simple representations of the three principal figures—the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—Nativity sets have grown to include figurines of almost everyone even remotely connected to the Christmas story.  In addition to the expected—angels, shepherds, the Three Kings, and a varied assortment of friendly beasts—many modern manger scenes also incorporate mythic secular characters. There are little drummer boys, homeless kittens—even kneeling Santas.

Early pilgrimages to the Holy Land served as inspiration for the Nativity scene tradition, and a sixth century Roman basilica, “Holy Mary of the Nativity,” featured the first three-dimensional figures. It was, however, several more centuries before the concept of a figural Nativity scene really took hold.  In the meantime, there were the “living Nativities” of the Middle Ages, staged in churches by costumed performers. The earliest and most famous of these was created by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223.

St. Francis felt that, for many of his congregation, Christmas had lost its true meaning. A “living Nativity” would bring the story closer to them. The village of Greccio, near Assisi, was restyled as Bethlehem; local shepherds (and their livestock) starred as the main characters.  On Christmas Eve, torch-bearing villagers arrived to experience, in person, the wonder of the crèche.  

Nativity dramas became a much-anticipated annual social event, but the boisterous crowds eventually proved too much for somber cathedrals. By the late sixteenth century, Nativity re-enactments had moved to town squares, eventually disappearing from view. (The tradition re-surfaced in the 20th century, and today many communities again stage “living Nativities.” One of the most spectacular is featured annually at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.)

Once more the focus was on figural representations, first popularized in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by the Jesuits. These Nativity scenes in European churches were fashioned of wood, terra cotta, stone, fabric, or metal. They could be nearly full-size, half-size, or miniature, depending on space, and were often backed by a realistic stable setting.

By the early 17th century, displays were also found in homes, a custom that had its roots in southern Italy. In some European countries, devout families even kept a manger scene on display year-round. Early home crèches were hand-crafted, a time-consuming and costly process. The scenes became increasingly more elaborate, with the humble inhabitants of Bethlehem’s stable decked out in fine linens and brocades, and the crowns of the Wise Men dotted with precious jewels.

Those who could not afford such splendor often crafted manger scenes from whatever materials were at hand. As Christianity spread, this form of self-expression flourished:  the influence of individual cultures can be seen to wonderful advantage in Nativity sets from around the world. Each interpretation incorporates indigenous materials, and envisions the principal Nativity characters with a sensibility inherent to the locale.  A Zulu rendition of the Holy Family, fashioned from fabric, beads, wood, and straw, may seem to have little correlation to a Renaissance religious painting. There is, however, a strong bond between the two: the universality of the Christmas story.

Today, manger scenes continue to be re-imagined in countless ways.  For many, however, the “real” Nativity set is the one that has been handed down from generation to generation. The plaster may be chipped on this piece, the paint a bit faded on that one. A donkey may be missing a foot; there may be a Bethlehem Star that stubbornly refuses to light. But still, these visual reminders of the Christmas story continue to inspire, some 2,000 years on.

Merry Christmas!

Photos by Leslie Piña

Photo Associates: Ramon Piña & Hank Kuhlmann

Donald-Brian Johnson and Leslie Piña are the co-authors of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles. Dr.  Piña is also the co-author of “Nativity Crèches of the World” Please address inquiries (or holiday greetings) to:  HYPERLINK ""