The Nativity Scene
According to the Scriptures, when Christ was born his parents were staying temporarily in a stable or cave in Bethlehem because “there was no room in the inn,” and Christ had to be laid in the manger found there. The place believed to be the actual location of his birth is a place of veneration, and has traditionally been venerated since Christ's birth. St. Helena, two or three centuries later, had a chapel built at the site, which was adorned with marble and other precious materials. Under Constantine, a basilica was erected over the chapel, more elaborate and beautiful than the chapel his mother had built. Today, visitors to the basilica can get to the crypt where they will find the very spot that is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus, marked by a star cut out of a stone, surrounded by the words “Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est” (“Here Christ Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary”).
The relics of the manger, Jesus' first crib, can be found in St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. They were brought there probably under Pope Theodore between 640-649 in order to preserve them from being taken or desecrated by marauders. There are currently five pieces of wood which have been determined to be from a sycamore tree. It is believed that the wood merely acted as support for the actual manger itself, which was probably made of limestone like the cave from which it originated.
There has always been a fairly strong devotion to the birthplace of Jesus, but the nativity set as we tend to think of it was first popularized by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. After visiting Rome in 1223, St. Francis went to Greccio where he arrived on Christmas Eve. There, he made a crib and surrounded it with figures of Mary, Joseph, animals, and shepherds, and thus began the widespread use of the nativity scene. These help people to remember the mystery of the Incarnation – God came down to earth in the form of man so that we could be saved.
With most nativity scenes, included are the crib (also known as manger or creche), figures of Mary, St. Joseph, and the shepherds, as well as a variety of animals – normally at least a donkey and an ox. Often there are also sheep, one or more angels, the Star of Bethlehem, and even the three Magi at the stable, although some people wait until Epiphany to place the Magi there. Most people will wait until Christmas Day to place the baby Jesus in the manger. Some smaller and simpler versions of the nativity scene include just Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus alone under a small stable.
View our Nativity sets here.