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How We Got the Nativity Scene

The nativity scene is derived from the accounts of Christ's birth found in the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew in the Bible. Luke speaks of Joseph and his pregnant wife, Mary, traveling to Bethlehem where they find no available lodging. Their shelter became a stable, where Mary gave birth to the Christ Child. Luke also tells of an angelic announcement to local shepherds and their rushing to the stable to witness the miraculous, newly born child. Matthew's is the only account of the incredible journey of wise men from the east. The combination of these stories provides the inspiration for most nativity scenes.



The History of Nativity Scenes

While there is evidence of the nativity scene existing in the 4th century A.D., St. Francis of Assisi is usually credited with popularizing the nativity scene. In 1223 or 1224, he is said to have constructed a life-sized nativity scene-a manger scene with live animals. In those early years, nativity scenes were simple, focusing on the baby Jesus Christ and His mother Mary. Joseph was absent in many of those early nativity scenes, possibly because of his initial struggle to accept Mary's pregnancy. Common to nativity scenes were the three wise men--the three kings or the Magi--who had come to worship the Christ Child with their precious gifts. Over time, the nativity scene has become more elaborate, with some nativity scenes containing hundreds of figurines. Enthusiasts of nativity scenes collect every type of figurine from simple wooden models carved in Mexico to child-friendly durable plastic nativity scene figures manufactured by toy companies to full crystal or porcelain nativity scene statuettes created by fine china and jewelry companies.


Errors in Nativity Scenes

Tradition has a way of replacing historical facts. While we often think of Christ's birth stable as the type of stable that would be found in a modern farmyard, the ancient "stable" should likely be translated as "cave" or "grotto." Over the years, nativity scenes have depicted the stable in a variety of ways, often erroneously. As an interesting historical note, the traditional "stable"-grotto--location of Christ's birth in Bethlehem is said to have had a church (The Church of the Nativity) built over it in the 4th century A.D. That church building was later destroyed and rebuilt in the 6th century. In the 7th century Persians invaded and destroyed all the Christian churches, except the Church of the Nativity. According to legend, the invaders were ready to destroy the church when they noticed a mural depicting the Magi wearing Persian dress. Believing that the church honored these men, the Church of the Nativity was spared. Today, the Church of the Nativity is the oldest church in the Holy Land still in use.


Nativity Scenes Today

Since those early days, nativity scenes have grown in popularity. Formerly, you could only admire a nativity scene in a church setting, a town square or a palace. Now, you can find nativity scenes everywhere-you may even have one of your own. Whether life-sized or miniature, the nativity scene is an integral part of the Christmas holiday, one that reminds us of the real story that happened about 2,000 years ago.


Names for Nativity Scenes in Different Countries:

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Information and a brief history of nativity scenes

Name Country
Presépio Italy
Crèche France
Krippe Germany
Jesliky Czechoslovakia
Nacimiento Spain
Lapinha Brazil
Nativity United States

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