Why Do We . . . Display Nativity Scenes?

It 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 traditions—carols, 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 incorporate—the 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, and cultures.

Regardless of how we observe the tradition of displaying Nativity scenes, the purpose—celebrating God coming to us—remains the same.

© Oblates, Nov/Dec 2002, Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, Belleville IL


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