History & Tradition · Unique

Origin of Nativity Scenes

Pictures and displays have been used to tell Bible stories since the days of the early church. Nativity sets are popular indoor decorations for many homes during the Christmas Holidays. In fact, the original nativity display was not motionless figurines.

It was a live display with people dressed as Joseph and Mary with live animals. In 1223, St Frances of Assisi had longed to see the nativity with his own eyes. Therefore, he planned a surprise for the people of the town.

This turned out to be the first nativity display, which used real people and animals. This eventually spread to Germany I the 1600’s. Traditionally the sets were displayed in the front of medieval churches and temples. Eventually carvings of these images were done in wood or made out of straw by artists. The nativity scene moved to other countries like Italy where other materials such as stone and ivory was used.

Many Italians commissioned famous artists to hand sculpt or carve their nativity displays. When the town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was settled in 1741, the people there brought this old tradition to America.

Originally, the nativity sets were called crèche, which means crib in French. Materials used today can range from paper mache, to glass or ceramic. A background of a barn or known as a manager is used by most people, but backgrounds more natural as grass or rocks is used by others.

A nativity scene generally refers to any depiction of the birth or birthplace of Jesus. In Spain and some hispanic countries, this is called Belén (meaning Bethlehem in Spanish). In Argentina it is called pesebre, similar to Catalan (pessebre), and in Mexico is known as nacimiento (in fact, ‘pesebre’, ‘nacimiento’ and ‘Belén’ can be used interchangeably in most Spanish speaking countries).

3 thoughts on “Origin of Nativity Scenes

  1. I have been looking for a Coptic nativity set for my wife. She collects nativity sets. We were in Egypt several years back and could not find one. Do you have any suggested sources who might sell such sets?

    Thank you.

    Charles Scott — Tulsa, OK

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