The first instance of a nativity scene being used in devotion at Christmastime was in 1223 in Greccio, Italy. It was erected by Francis of Assisi, the greatest of Christians other than Jesus himself. In his “Life of Francis”, Bonaventure reported:
Now three years before his death it befell that he was minded, at the town of Greccio, to celebrate the memory of the Birth of the Child Jesus, with all the added solemnity that he might, for the kindling of devotion. That this might not seem an innovation, he sought and obtained license from the Supreme Pontiff, and then made ready a manger, and bade hay, together with an ox and an ass, be brought unto the spot. The Brethren were called together, the folk assembled, the wood echoed with their voices, and that august night was made radiant and solemn with many bright lights, and with tuneful and sonorous praises. The man of God, filled with tender love, stood before the manger, bathed m tears, and overflowing with joy. Solemn Masses were celebrated over the manger, Francis, the Levite of Christ, chanting the Holy Gospel. Then he preached unto the folk standing round of the Birth of the King in poverty, calling Him, when he wished to name Him, the Child of Bethlehem, by reason of his tender love for Him.
My wife and I both grew up with crèches, nativity scenes, as part of our Christmas celebration. After our first Christmas together we realized we wanted one but it took quite a while to find one that suited us. After a number of years we finally stumbled upon the crèche above. The figures are small—roughly 3 inches tall—it is made of majolica, and I believe it was made by American artists.
The Samoyed guarding the infant Jesus was a later addition and, to the best of my knowledge, it is distinctive to us.