Who Invented the Nativity Scene?

By Manning, Kathleen | U.S. Catholic, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Who Invented the Nativity Scene?


Manning, Kathleen, U.S. Catholic


If you missed the feast of Francis of Assisi in October, the Christmas season offers another opportunity to commemorate the saint. Anyone who has erected a nativity scene is following Francis' 13th-century example.

On Christmas Eve 1223, the saint created the first nativity in the Italian city of Greccio. With the help of a local nobleman, Francis celebrated the birth of Jesus in a cave outside the town. The liturgy featured a hay-filled manger in front of the temporary altar, and as Francis preached, the nobleman arranged to have an ox and a donkey stand at the altar as well.

The Franciscans quickly spread the practice of creating nativity scenes with live animals and actors. Living scenes remained popular, but static nativities also developed, allowing the scene to remain on display for longer periods for meditation.

As the tradition was introduced to new regions throughout the world, nativity scenes adapted to local tastes and customs. Incorporating local elements was especially popular in Francis' native Italy, where the participants in the scene looked less like biblical figures and more like characters from the local village.

A few years ago, however, there were complaints that this localism had gone too far when a figurine of former Italian prime minister, the scandal-plagued Silvio Berlusconi, appeared in a nativity scene in Naples.

By the 19th century Protestant churches, which initially rejected nativity scenes as a form of idolatrous Catholic superstition, slackened their opposition to the scenes, and their popularity spread through the wider Christian world. …

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