Published: 12-12-2012, 05:01

Early Nativity Scenes

Nativity Scene

Nativity Scene: Origins

Nativity Scene: Southern Europe

Nativity Scene: Latin America

Nativity Scene: Central Europe

Nativity Scene: The United States

The popularity of these living Nativity scenes gave rise to another custom: recreating the birth scene with figurines. By the sixteenth century many churches throughout Italy and Germany presented a Nativity scene of this type at Christmas time. Some French churches adopted the custom as well.

In the seventeenth century families began to create their own Na-tivity scenes. These became more elaborate with time. The art form reached spectacular heights in eighteenth-century Naples, Italy. Families competed with each other to produce the most elegant and elaborate crib scenes. These scenes expanded far beyond the manger to include village backdrops, ordinary villagers, ruined Roman temples, angels, and even foreigners whom the families thought might have rushed to Bethlehem had they known of the miraculous birth. (See also Christmas Village)

Rich and noble Italian families employed established artists and sculptors to create clay or wood heads and shoulders. The artists then attached these heads to flexible bodies fashioned out of cloth, string, and wire. Costumes cut of rich fabrics, some embellished with jewels, adorned each figure. The splendor of the backdrops, however, vied with the exquisitely detailed props and figurines for the viewer’s attention. Some settings included real waterfalls, while others featured gushing fountains or even an erupting Mount Vesuvius. Today many of these marvelous works are preserved and displayed in Italy’s museums and churches.

The Nativity scene also rooted itself firmly in French soil, especially in the southern region of Provence. The first manger scenes included only those figures most related to the story of the Nativity: Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the shepherds, etc. In the eighteenth century, however, people began to display a multitude of characters in their home Nativity scenes. Some writers claim that Italian peddlers introduced these new figurines to southern France.

In 1803 small clay statuettes from Provence, called santons (or “little saints”) appeared at the Christmas fair in Marseille. These santons became an essential element of the French Nativity scene. In addition to characters mentioned in the biblical accounts of the Nativity, the Provençal santons represented a wide variety of ordinary French townspeople, such as the baker, the mayor, the fishmonger, the village idiot, and others. One writer has identified many of these figures as stock characters in folk Nativity plays that circulated throughout the region as early as the Middle Ages. Like their Italian counterparts, French Nativity scenes depicted the birth of Christ taking place in a local setting, such as a village in Provence. French settlers brought the Christmas crib with them to Canada where another innovation occurred. The French Canadians of Quebec often set up their Nativity scenes under the Christmas tree.