Among many favorite Christmas decorations are nativity scenes or crèches, depicting the stable scene of Jesus’ birth in Christian tradition. Whether life-size and displayed in front of a home or church, or smaller and set up inside a home, nativity scenes have been part of Christmas celebrations since the 13th century.
What’s in a Nativity Scene?
Most nativity scenes include, at a minimum, the “Holy Family” of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in a manger, as depicted in the Biblical accounts. Most also include sheep and other animals that might be found in a stable, as well as angels, shepherds, and the three Magi (wise men). More elaborate scenes may feature additional scenery, structures, and other animals and figures.
Earliest Nativity Scenes
St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals, is credited with the first arrangement depicting the birth of Jesus when he created a living nativity scene using people and animals, apparently in an effort to inspire thoughts on the meaning of Christmas. Approved of (even blessed by) the Pope at the time, living nativity scenes soon became popular across Italy and beyond. Statues and figurines came to take the place of the living people and animals in nativity scenes and wealthy families sought to outdo each other with their elaborately carved and decorated scenes.
Nativity Scenes Spread Across Europe
As nativity scenes became fashionable beyond Italy, people in different countries adapted the scenes to meet their regional customs, materials, and styles, particularly in more heavily Catholic regions.
With a long tradition of elaborate wood-carving, it’s no surprise that older German nativity scenes are usually highly carved and feature rustic stables that look as if you might find it high in the Alps. German crèches are also sometimes incorporated into Christmas carousels or Weinachtspyramide which have propellers that rotate the carousel with the heat from candles around the edges.
The Italian nativity scene is called a presepio and features the usual people and animals along with everyday people such as merchants, artisans, and other workers. Naples became the center of presepio creation in the 18th century and Neapolitan scenes are still highly sought out.
In southern France, which has a tradition of making pottery and ceramics, terracotta crèches developed, growing to include dozens of brightly-painted saints called santons.
An unusual tradition in Spanish nativity scenes is the caganer or “pooper”, a bare-bottomed peasant character, who appears to be in need of a toilet. Spanish scenes also usually feature an entire city rather than just a stable area, and the caganer is often hidden in a corner of the scene with children racing to spot him first.
Modern Nativity Scenes
While you are unlikely to find 18th century nativity scenes lurking in many antique shops, vintage and retro sets are common and delightful and suited to any decor style.
Makers of the popular, mid-century Putz holiday houses also created nativity sets to accompany Putz villages.
As celluloid animals and other figures became popular in the early 1900s, this new material was used to create detailed, lightweight nativity sets.
Printed Cardboard Nativities
Inexpensive, easily stored, and enjoyable for children to assemble by folding and interlocking tabs, perforated or die-cut cardboard nativity sets became popular in the mid-20th century.
As plastics have taken over much outdoor decorating, large, blow-molded, vintage nativity sets, often lighted, are a familiar sight in many yards.
Another mid-century trend was flocked figurines and ornaments, and nativity sets did not escape this treatment. Fuzzy sheep, cows, wise men, and the Holy Family can be found with fuzzy stables to match.
Few of us are prepared to host a living scene, but a vintage nativity set can help you enjoy this holiday decorating tradition for years to come.