Nativity scenes have always fascinated me. As a child, I eagerly anticipated the placement of the one outside of St. John the Apostle Catholic Church, as well as the life-size version that my grandparents’ neighbor, Mrs. Imogene Kohlar, set up in her yard. One Christmas, her husband did not put it out, and I was so upset my dad called them. It was out the next day.
I loved baby dolls and animals, so that was the initial attraction. At least it was driving home the reason for the season in my young mind.
According to Wikipedia, St. Francis of Assisi is credited for the first live Nativity scene in Greccio in central Italy in 1223. Such re-enactment pantomimes became hugely popular and spread throughout Christendom. Within 100 years, every church in Italy was expected to have a Nativity scene on display at Christmastime. Eventually, statues replaced human and animal participants, and static scenes grew into elaborate affairs with richly robed figurines placed in intricate landscaped settings.
In addition to Joseph, Mary and and baby Jesus, shepherds, sheep and angels have been placed near the manger, as described in the Gospel of Luke.
It should be noted that crèches are not considered historically accurate, as most depict shepherds and the Magi in the scene. The Gospel of Matthew suggests that the Magi followed the star for more than a year after Jesus’ birth.
As for the animals in the scene, there is often the inclusion of an ox and a donkey. My childhood Nativity scene included them, and they were my favorite. The ox traditionally represents patience, the nation of Israel and Old Testament sacrificial worship, while the donkey represents humility, readiness to serve and the Gentiles (per Wikipedia).
Every year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art displays an 18th-century Neapolitan Nativity scene at the foot of its Christmas tree. The late Loretta Hines Howard, who began collecting crèche figures in 1925, donated the characters to this exhibit. She wished to combine the custom of Nativity scenes, a Roman Catholic custom, with Christmas trees, which began as a Protestant tradition.
Truly works of art, consider gifting a Nativity scene this season. Many artisans do their own take on the Nativity, making them out of wood, stone and pottery.
~ Lacey Howell is a recovering English major from Auburn who now lives on Lake Martin, sells real estate, rides horses and loves good wine. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram @LaceyHowell.