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Nativity scenes have been a very important Christmas tradition for centuries. Displayed in churches and homes alike, they’re a holiday decor staple. Ever wondered about their roots?
Yes? No? Maybe-so? Whatever the case, here’s a deep-dive into the roots and development of the nativity scene.
What is a Nativity Scene?
A nativity scene is an arrangement of dolls depicting the image of baby Jesus in the manger.
For the most part, a nativity scene comprises of Baby Jesus in a manger, overlooked by Mary and Joseph, and surrounded by the Three Wise Men. Each of the men are holding gifts to gift to the newborn.
Next to the men who all look like Dumbledore, shepherds are shown kneeling by the manger. If we’re really going for it, the Star of David hangs above it all.
Sometimes, they get a little snazzy and add some donkeys or sheep, but the core of the scene resides in the people. They’re really serving us with some rustic farm-house vibes to pound in the point that IT WAS A MANGER. WITH HAY. BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW. Fair enough, I guess.
Origins of the Nativity Scene
The first crib used for a form of worship dates back to the fourth century in Rome. Of the three Christmas masses, one was called Ad Praesepe.
Ad Praesepe took place in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, a shrine believed to hold the original nativity in Bethlehem.
St. Francis receives most of the credit for the nativity scene we know and love today. During Christmas in 1224, he recreated the nativity scene using real people and animals in Italy. Very Mannequin Challenge of him. Better yet, very Orin’s “Human Farm” of him.
St. Francis preached about the birth of Jesus Christ to the people. The practice caught speed and prevalence fairly quickly; soon enough, nativity scenes were commonplace all across the continent of Europe.
Still, reenactments of the scene happen on Christmas Eve in the French region of Provence. Also, other cities hold candlelit services of Nativity during Christmas time.
Early Nativity Scenes
So, to sum it up, the practice of reenacting the nativity scene spread like wildfire. In light of this, crafting figurines to represent the scene began to become as custom, as well.
In the 1500’s, these nativity scenes were seen in the churches of Europe during Christmas time.
A couple hundred years later, families began to celebrate with their own nativity scenes. Over time, they became more and more complex.
Then, in the 18th century, this custom became extremely popular in Naples, Italy. Scenes began to include original backdrops and more people witnessing the birth of Christ.
Wealthy families in Italy paid artists to create their nativity scene. Artists went all out for their creations, creating beautiful sculptures, backdrops, and costumes.
Today, some of these nativity scenes are stored in Italian museums for posterity. After the rise of nativity scenes in France and Italy, the tradition reached countries all across Europe.
The United States
In the 1700s, German immigrants brought the nativity scene custom to the United States. Just like in Europe, the people took to the practice with speed and excitement. Nativity scenes cropped up all over the country.
The German scenes were referred to as putz. Scenes were filled with dozens of characters in front of gardens, waterfalls, and other scenery.
Still today, German-Americans in Pennsylvania celebrate the putz custom. In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a community putz is built every year. Community scenes are giant and subsequently HEAVY, reaching thousands of pounds in total.
Most places in America put up nativity scenes during Christmas time for either the ~aesthetic~ or as a religious sentiment. Nativity scenes can be a variety of sizes, some small enough to cover counter-tops and others large enough to span the length of entire rooms.
Just like it was started back in Europe hundreds of years ago, nativity scenes with real people are still found in Christmas events everywhere.