Published: 12-12-2012, 05:04

Nativity Scene: Southern Europe

Nativity Scene

Nativity Scene: Origins

Early Nativity Scenes

Nativity Scene: Latin America

Nativity Scene: Central Europe

Nativity Scene: The United States

In southern Europe, where the Christmas tree never found much favor, home Christmas decoration focuses around the Nativity scene. The Spanish call the scene a nacimiento (meaning “birth”) or a belén (meaning “Bethlehem”), the Italians call it a presépio (meaning “crib”), and the French call it a crèche (meaning “crib”). In the same way that many North Americans collect Christmas tree ornaments, many southern European families slowly build a treasured collection of Nativity figurines. Though the scene itself may be assembled beforehand, many await Christmas Eve or Christmas morning to place the baby Jesus in his crib. Some civic and church celebrations also center on manger scenes. In Spain Nativity scenes may be found in public plazas. On Epiphany several local men dressed as the Three Kings may visit the public Nativity scene, reenacting the adoration of the Magi.

In Italy Nativity scenes pop up everywhere in the weeks before Christmas. Shop windows display manger scenes made out of pastry, bread, fruit, seeds, shells, and even butter. Children make Nativity scenes out of cardboard or papier mâché. Many churches present crib scenes as well. The Basilica of Saints Cosmos and Damian in Rome houses one of the most famous. Twenty-seven-feet high, forty-five-feet long, and twenty-one-feet wide, it contains several hundred hand-sculpted wooden statues. Rome’s Church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli exhibits the most famous Christ child, however. An old custom encourages children to recite carefully memorized sermons in front of his crib. Folk beliefs credit the jewel-studded golden infant, known as “Santo Bambino,” with the power to heal.