One of the most widespread religions worldwide is Christianity, which means there are lots and lots of people who celebrate Christmas. Even those who are not very religious tend to get caught up in the Christmas spirit because putting up Christmas decorations and exchanging gifts is a lot of fun. Homes and neighborhoods across the world get decked out in seasonal finery.
Santa and his reindeer are sure to feature, along with holly leaves and berries, mistletoe and other festive favorites. Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer is sure to be around with Christmas robins, candy canes and snowmen. But even as we get caught up in the festive spirit, it’s important to remember the more serious aspect of this special time.
Decorating with Nativity Scenes
One of the best ways to keep the true meaning of Christmas front and center of holiday celebrations is to set up a nativity scene. Model figures of the holy family and their followers also look decorative and festive but in a more serious style than Rudolph and Santa.
To get started, visit Outdoor Nativity Sets pages on some of your favorite home and garden websites. Many different nativity sets are available, so there’ll be something to suit every taste. Choose figures made from different materials, with different finishes and different colors – and at a range of prices. The larger models need to be set up outdoors but tiny figures can also be used to help bring the true meaning of Christmas inside the home.
If money is no object, luxurious sets of life-sized figures are available for $2,000 or above. For those who enjoy arts and crafts, it’s also possible to make nativity sets very cheaply. Or, as a compromise, buy a plain white nativity set and let the whole family enjoy some figure painting to customize the figures.
The Meaning of Nativity Scenes
The word nativity comes from the Latin word for ‘birth,’ so a Christmas nativity scene refers to any representation of the night of the birth of Christ, as described in the Gospels. Nativity scenes can be represented in paintings, carvings, or models – sometimes, living people even act out nativity plays or pose in nativity scenes or tableaux.
In all the different types of nativity, the same central elements are usually present. The central figure is the baby Jesus, lying in a manger and the other characters are usually Mary, Joseph, the three wise men, some shepherds, some farm animals and some angels. The star that hovered over the stable where Jesus was born is often included as well.
The First Nativity Scenes
Today, many people feel that Christmas is too commercialized and that ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ gets lost under the materialistic concerns about buying Christmas accessories and receiving Christmas gifts. But even in the 13th century, devout Christians were concerned that there was not enough emphasis on celebrating the birth of Christ.
According to legend, Saint Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene in 1223 in Italy. Saint Francis realized that even if there were plenty of paintings representing the nativity scene, a physical tableau composed of real people and animals would be even more powerful. Viewing these scenes would make it easy to imagine the night of Christ’s birth much more vividly than merely looking at a picture.
So, St Francis created a nativity scene with human characters and live animals in the Italian town of Greccio. On Christmas Eve, Midnight Mass was celebrated at an altar above the manger of the nativity scene, with both friars and citizens attending.
St Francis’ idea was a great success. Soon, all the churches in Italy had their own nativity scenes, although they began to use figurines instead of live animals and humans. A couple of hundred years later, all the other Catholic countries in Europe also had their own nativity scenes in all their churches.
Although St Francis’ nativity was probably the first live nativity scene enacted with real characters, other visual representations of the birth of Christ date back much further.
A painting on a catacomb in Rome, dating from the late third or early fourth century AD, depicts baby Jesus with his mother, Mary, and the wise men presenting their gifts. This is thought to be among the oldest representations of the holy nativity.
Also in Rome, a sarcophagus dating back to the fourth century depicts Mary, Jesus, and three wise men with their camels, lighted from above by a single star. Fifth- and sixth-century mosaics, showing the nativity figures wearing opulent clothing and jewelry – and without any animals or shepherds – can also be found in some Italian cities.
Modern Nativity Scenes
For a nativity scene to be realistic (that is, as similar as possible to the actual conditions of Christ’s birth), it should feature a dry, sandy landscape, without rivers or many trees, but with plenty of flowers and shrubs. Buildings – one of which should be an inn – should be white.
However, being realistic is not the only point of nativity scenes. Many countries or cities have national or regional Christmas traditions that have been passed down through generations, and particular types of nativity scenes are often part of these regional traditions.
Italy remained at the forefront of nativity scenes for the next several centuries. Towards the end of the 15th century, Giovanni and Pietro Alamanno of Naples created some famous life-size nativity figures, partly painted and partly covered in gold leaf.
In the first few decades of the 16th century, St Cajetan of Thiene created a famous wooden nativity scene. In contrast to the Alamanno brothers’ gilded figures, Thiene’s wooden figures were realistically dressed to resemble the real citizens of Naples. However, Neapolitans soon started to create more and more elaborate nativity scenes, with all sorts of fictional and popular characters ranging alongside the holy family.
Szopki are traditional nativity scenes that are native to Poland. The capital city, Kraków, is a stronghold of the Roman Catholic Church, and since the 19th century, craftsmen in Kraków have been making these szopki during the winter as a means of earning some extra money over the festive season.
They can be made of any light materials, such as wood, cardboard, or papier-mâché. These figures would be carried from door to door by street performers or carol singers, and householders would donate money or buy the szopki.
Unlike traditional scenes depicting the holy family, manger, and farm animals, szopki consist largely of models of actual or historical Polish buildings. At this time of year, craftsmen spend months creating life-life replicas of the ornate structures typical of this region, complete with domes, turrets, and all manner of elaborate architectural features. Small puppets representing the nativity characters can be found lurking among the tall buildings.
But just as the traditional nativity figures are situated among the modern buildings, so are modern figures. Puppets representing current affairs (from the moon landing to the recent World Cup) can be found side by side with the holy family and their entourage!
Since 1937, the szopki have been exhibited in the market square of Krakow Old Town on the first Thursday of December. After the exhibition, the szopki are displayed for the next three months in Kraków’s Historical Museum. The szopka tradition of Kraków is recognized by UNESCO as part of the world’s ‘intangible’ cultural heritage.
Vatican City in Italy is the center of the Roman Catholic faith, so Italy always displays several life-like nativity scenes here. Many of the figures used have been passed down through the generations for more than 200 years. Not surprisingly, Father Christmas is not invited to participate in this religious symbology.
In the late 1700s, nativity scenes in France and the Czech Republic were banned by political leaders – but in both countries, the citizens were undaunted. They just gave up on large, public nativity scenes while continuing to display smaller nativities in the privacy of their own homes. In France, small terracotta figurines are painted by hand and passed down in families from one generation to the next.
The Philippines, like Italy, has a large number of Roman Catholics. Filipinos have traditionally displayed nativity scenes at Christmas every year since the 16th century. Just as the stable where Jesus was born was illuminated by the Star of Bethlehem, so Philippine nativities are lit by special lanterns called parol.
In the United States, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has a magnificent nativity display called the Neapolitan Baroque Crèche that it displays every Christmas. Against the backdrop of a magnificent Spanish choir screen, traditional nativity figures are displayed under an enormous spruce tree.
Christmas is such a wonderful time of the year. It’s a time to unwind, relax, and recharge before the New Year kicks off. It’s a time to indulge in festive food, buy gifts, and spend time with family. But it should also be a time to think about Christian values like humility, kindness, and generosity. Decorating your home or neighborhood with well-chosen nativity scenes will help you keep these values in mind this festive season.