Nativity Scenes Recall Spiritual Origins of Holiday

By Clinton J. Holloway


With the arrival of the Christmas season comes the chance to indulge in bit of creative decorating rarely found at other times of the year. Trees encrusted with jewels of ornaments; lights, whether LED or candlelight, illuminate the darkness. Jolly Santas, playful reindeer and portly snowmen frolic about the house, turning up in unexpected places to delight the spirit within all of us.


For some, no Christmas decorating would be complete without a Nativity or manger scene, a reminder of the spiritual origins of the holiday. “Nativity” refers to scenes which exhibit, at their most basic, the infant Jesus, his mother, Mary, and Joseph. Nativities illustrate the story of the birth of Jesus as found in the Bible in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.


Italian monk Francis of Assisi (image, right) is credited with staging the first Nativity scene in 1223, inspired by a recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Assisi’s Nativity scene employed living participants. Thereafter such living displays became popular and within a hundred years every church in Italy was staging such exhibitions at Christmastime.  


As Italy was a country noted for its craftsman and artisans, statues began to replace the human and animal participants and were set into increasingly elaborate landscapes. The scenes’ popularity eventually spread to other Catholic countries, though the culmination of the Nativity scene as an art form is said to have reached its pinnacle in Naples four hundred years ago.


One famous example of an 18th-century Neapolitan Nativity scene is displayed annually at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and includes more than 50 angels suspended from a 20-foot spruce tree. The photo, left, shows the infant Jesus from this Nativity. It was created in the second half of the 18th-century of polychromed terracotta, charred wood and rope; the halo is of silver gilt.


By the 19th century, Nativity scenes had also became popular in Protestant traditions. Aided in part by availability due to the rise of mass production, Nativity scenes also became popular for home use.


The simplest Nativity scenes contain the infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph and can become increasingly more elaborate with the addition of shepherds, wise men or Magi, and a host of barnyard animals and camels. These figures are often set against the backdrop of a cave, a barn or, in Italian tradition, the ruin of a Roman temple with arches and pillars.


In some scenes the infant Jesus is attached to the manger while in others the figure is separate and does not make his appearance until Christmas morning. The placement of a Nativity scene among the Christmas decorations is seen as a means of engaging the emotions of the faithful, heightening the intensity of the spiritual experience and communicating the story to younger generations in a visual way.


As Nativity scenes have been widely produced for the last two centuries, they present a breadth of collecting and decorating possibilities. Handmade varieties can have a folk art appeal, while exquisitely detailed high style examples from Italy have been made continuously for hundreds of years.


Mid-20th-century German porcelain examples by Hummel and Goebel are prized by collectors. In recent decades African, South American and Eastern European examples have found their way into American homes. Snow globes and ornaments are also popular mediums for Nativity scenes and for cross-collecting.


Passed from generation to generation, nativities and mangers often become prized family heirlooms. Several have come down within my own family so that we display different versions in different years with the added nostalgia of remembering loved ones who were original owners.


Plush, plastic and pop-up book versions are kid-friendly and are suitable for use in decorating a child’s space (photo, right; available at Tennessee Treasures, W-412 for $8). Even a casual stroll through GasLamp and GasLamp Too will reveal scenes made of every material imaginable for any décor or any budget.


Clinton J. Holloway, historian and minister


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