Nativity Scenes Through the Ages

Nativity SetNativity scenes have been a traditional Christmas staple in Christian households since the 1500s.  Whether it is a ceramic set in a home or store, a live scene near a church, or a children’s pageant, it’s impossible to avoid seeing a nativity scene during the month of December.  Nativity sets are particularly popular among Italian-Americans as the history of these scenes begins in Italy.

The first nativity scene recorded took place in Greccio, Italy in 1223 and its creation is credited to St. Francis of Assisi.  While the story of the nativity was told in church every year, St. Francis thought the story should be told in a way that was more accessible and understandable to the people.  With permission from Pope Honorious III, St. Francis set up the first nativity scene in a cave complete with a manger and live animals.   Living nativity scenes continued to exist, but the idea caught on more in the 1300s when they started to be used as display pieces in churches.  The figures were statue-sized, usually made out of terracotta and often displayed in the church all year.  In the 1500s, smaller versions of church nativity sets began to appear in the homes of wealthier families, and artisans started to make the figurines out of clay, wax, and wood.  The tradition spread through most Christian countries where each region would design their nativity sets with their own cultural influence and style.  Germany, in particular, embraced the tradition and was most instrumental in making at-home nativity scenes more widespread.

Today’s nativity sets are usually made from china, porcelain, resin or ceramic.  A basic setting usually consists of the stable, Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in the manger.  In addition to the basic set-up, other figurines can include the angel Gabriel, the star of Bethlehem, barn animals (usually donkeys, cows, and sheep), shepherds, and the three wise men (sometimes with a camel, as well).  Some cultures choose to display certain pieces separately throughout the Christmas season.  For example, some choose not to display the infant Jesus until December 25.  Some households (and most churches) prefer not display to the wise men and their camels until the celebration of the Epiphany.  Although not biblically accurate, most private households choose to display the shepherds and the wise men all together in the one scene.

My parents own a ceramic Fontinini® nativity set; they have had it for 34 years.  This particular set had a sizeable, sturdy, straw-filled stable with large ceramic figures that my mom thought would be great for when she and my dad had children (eventually,  that would be my brother and me).  It was big enough for us to look at and it would be fun for us to set up the large figurines when we were old enough to handle them.

ShepherdCamelOur nativity set has changed a bit since my mother initially bought it.  Several figurines have been added on over the years.  This shepherd and the camel were not part of the original set.  When my mom first bought the set, there was only one shepherd and no camel.  She went to a ceramic shop in New Jersey, selected the two figurines, and had them painted to fit the general color scheme of the set.

AngelThis angel was a gift to us from a family friend.  It was actually a Christmas ornament, but we noticed that the angel was about the same size as our nativity figurines and actually fit in with the set very well.  Rather than hang it on the tree, we decided to make it a part of our nativity scene.

StarCowIn 2013, my family and I took a vacation to Italy and we had a day trip in Assisi.  Since St. Francis of Assisi is the credited founder of the nativity scene, my mom thought we should look for an animal figurine to add to our nativity scene.  We found this small clay cow in one of the local shops.  We also found a star ornament carved from olive wood.  We initially intended to hang it on our Christmas tree, but we eventually decided it looked even better in the manger scene.

donkeyThis is the latest addition to our nativity set; we just got it this year.  My parents took a trip to Eastern Europe this fall, and my mom bought this wooden donkey in Krakow.  It does not exactly go with our set (my parents even told me to take it out while I was snapping the pictures), but it’s an interesting, well-made piece, and its origins from Poland make it even more special.

Our family nativity set has become one of our favorite decorations besides our Christmas tree.  It is one of our more interesting decorations, one that we love to show to our visitors at Christmas.  The pieces that we’ve collected over the years from all over make it even more special to us.  We are all planning to more travelling in the near future, so we look forward to discovering some new additions in the coming years.

Written by OSIA National Office Administrative/Scholarship Coordinator, Laura Kelly.


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