The Nativity at Christmas

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As the winter days grow shorter, and the soft glow of Christmas lights begin to twinkle in windows around the world, one iconic symbol of the holiday season consistently makes its appearance: the Nativity.

Intricately carved figurines, resplendent in their simple elegance, come together to recreate the birth scene of Jesus Christ, providing a potent reminder of the religious roots of Christmas. 

The Origin of The Nativity Scene

The Nativity scene, or the “crèche” as it is often called, can trace its roots back to the 13th century. Saint Francis of Assisi, an Italian friar, is credited with creating the first live Nativity scene in 1223 in an attempt to place the emphasis of Christmas upon the worship of Christ rather than upon secular materialism and gift giving.

Francis’ Nativity depiction wasn’t a simple static scene. It was a living tableau with humans and animals playing the parts of the key figures. The concept quickly caught on, spreading throughout Italy and later the rest of Europe.

a model scene of the nativity of jesus
Photo by Walter Chávez on Unsplash

Symbolism and Composition of The Nativity Scene

At its heart, the Nativity scene tells the story of Jesus’ birth as described in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Key elements and figures commonly included are:

  • The Stable: The humble backdrop of the scene, representing the place in Bethlehem where Jesus was born.
  • Mary and Joseph: The parents of Jesus, often depicted in adoration of their newborn child.
  • Baby Jesus: The central figure, usually shown in a manger, symbolising his humble beginnings.
  • The Star of Bethlehem: A bright star shining overhead, indicating divine birth.
  • Shepherds: Representing the Christian faithful, these figures are often depicted with their flock, having been the first to visit the newborn.
  • The Three Wise Men: Bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they symbolise the recognition of Jesus as King and God.
  • Angels: Messengers of God, often seen glorifying and celebrating Jesus’ birth.

The Tradition of Displaying The Nativity Scene

The tradition of setting up a Nativity scene is a cherished ritual in many Christian households around the world, with the timing varying widely. Some families set up the scene on the first day of Advent (four Sundays before Christmas), some on Christmas Eve, and others may leave it displayed until the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th), which commemorates the visit of the Wise Men.

The placement of the figures also has a traditional pattern. Mary and Joseph are typically placed first, with the manger left empty until Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, symbolising the anticipation of Christ’s birth. The Wise Men are often placed far from the manger, and then moved closer each day, reaching the scene on the Epiphany.

The Nativity Around The World

The tradition of the Nativity scene has taken root in various cultures, each adding their unique touch.

In Italy, for example, they are known as “Presepe” and are incredibly elaborate, often including not just the birth of Jesus but depictions of everyday life.

In Mexico, “Las Posadas” is a procession reenacting Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging.

In Poland, “Szopka” are intricate Nativity scenes with architecture reminiscent of Krakow’s historical buildings.

The Mystical Nativity painting
The Mystical Nativity by Sandro Botticelli

Artistic Interpretations of The Nativity

The birth of Christ has been a popular subject in the realm of art, even before the tradition of the Nativity scene was established.

Paintings, sculptures, stained glass, tapestries, and even entire church frescoes have depicted this poignant moment in history, each adding a unique perspective and interpretation.

Famous artworks include Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Mystic Nativity’, Giotto di Bondone’s ‘Nativity’ in the Scrovegni Chapel, and the numerous renditions by artists like Caravaggio, Fra Angelico, and Rembrandt.

The Nativity in Music and Film

The Nativity has been a rich source of inspiration for music and film, extending its influence beyond the visual arts.

In music, the story has been encapsulated in classic Christmas carols such as “O Holy Night,” “Away in a Manger,” and “Silent Night.”

In the realm of classical music, composers like Bach, Handel, and Britten have created entire oratorios and cantatas inspired by the birth of Jesus.

In film, the Nativity story has been told and retold in numerous ways, from traditional retellings like “The Nativity Story” (2006) to animated family films like “The Star” (2017). These movies help to bring the story to life, making it more accessible to a wider audience.

The Nativity in Modern Times: Reinterpretation and Controversy

In modern times, the Nativity scene has also been subject to reinterpretation and, at times, controversy. Some artists and groups have created Nativity scenes that reflect current societal issues, such as immigration or climate change. While these modern interpretations can stir controversy, they also serve to highlight the enduring relevance of the Nativity story and its capacity to spark dialogue and reflection.

The Everlasting Echo of The Nativity

From the humble stable in Bethlehem to the diverse homes and churches around the world, the tradition of the Nativity continues to be a beacon of hope, a symbol of joy, and a reminder of the humble beginnings of a figure who left an indelible mark on human history. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, the Nativity at Christmas provides an opportunity for reflection, peace, and a celebration of love and life.


The Nativity, a depiction of the birth of Jesus Christ, is a key tradition of Christmas, dating back to the 13th century. It involves a variety of figures including Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, shepherds, Wise Men, and angels, each with their own symbolic meanings.

The tradition has permeated various cultures globally, inspired countless artistic interpretations, and continues to be a profound symbol of faith, history, and celebration during the holiday season.

Read more about Christmas traditions and customs