Nativity Scenes

by Dave Schuler on December 24, 2013

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.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Jimbino December 24, 2013 at 10:37 am

Funny. You say that St Francis was the greatest of Christians after Jesus himself.

Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew and never denied it. He came to fulfill the Jewish law and never claimed to be a Christian.

The inventor of Christianity was St Paul, who never met Jesus until the sun-glare off somebody’s window temporarily blinded him.

Now along with talking snakes and donkeys, resurrections, water and wafers turning into body parts, unicorns, giants, ghosts, devils and angels, we’re supposed to believe that the Bible says that Jesus was a Christian?

jan December 24, 2013 at 11:25 am

It’s interesting you chose to write about creches, as they are rather controversial nowadays — especially public ones. In Santa Monica, CA traditional nativity scenes, which have lined the parkway of the well known Palisades Park for decades, were recently banned. They now have been relocated to a more obscure place, where only those in a small neighborhood know they are there. It’s just become a politically incorrect observance to have religious displays, such as the birth of baby Jesus, on display anymore.

When I was child, my family having few resources, invested in a cardboard nativity scene which I set up each year. When I was married I found a more substantial wood one. And, when my mother-in-law passed away we inherited her prized hand-painted one, which I arrange on a library table, every Christmas, with a soft light glowing on it throughout the season. It’s my favorite symbol of Christmas.

Dave Schuler December 24, 2013 at 12:18 pm

There’s a lot of confusion these days about rights. Freedom of speech pertains only to government limitation of speech. Freedom of religion pertains only to government indifference among sects. It has also come to mean non-sponsorship although that wasn’t the case in 1789.

Somehow the idea that people have a right not to be offended or to be exposed to things that might offend them has been spread around. Jefferson specifically rejected the idea of such a right:

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Jimbino December 24, 2013 at 2:37 pm

The big difference, which I know you understand, Dave Schuler, is that Jefferson did not favor polluting the public space with symbols of sectarian superstition like crucifixes, creches and foreskins.

steve December 24, 2013 at 3:23 pm

The offense lies in govt paying for the displays or the space. Either have none or provide equal space for any religious group wanting to also display. (Our set has a cat. We are cat people.)


jan December 24, 2013 at 9:07 pm

….We are cat people.

I’ve finally found something in common with Steve.

PD Shaw December 24, 2013 at 9:26 pm

My wife has about 20 nativity scenes, ranging from traditional to folk to ethnic to humorous to children’s toys, from metal to ceramic to embroidery. My favorite is one made with snowmen, and the angel snowman has a sign hanging from his neck that says: “Fear Not”

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