By Colleen Pressprich
Of all of the Christmas traditions, the humble nativity scene has to be the most common, most well-known, most cherished of all. Most of us have at least one that we put up each December. If you’re like me, that number is closer to 5.
Nativity scenes offer a visual reminder of the birth of Christ and as such can be a beautiful teaching tool when sharing the story of His birth with children.
The First Nativity Scene
Though today nativities are found on street corners and parish grounds, and students at Catholic schools all over stage living nativity productions, the very first nativity scene dates back to the year 1223. According to St. Bonaventure’s biography of him, St. Francis came up with the idea of staging a nativity as the backdrop for one of his homilies. His request to Pope Honorious for permission was granted and that year the town of Grecio first experienced a living nativity scene. Though the Gospels don’t mention any animals being present at Jesus’s birth, St. Francis chose a donkey and an ox for his, which might be why those animals are a part of so many scenes today. The two animals plus a manger filled with hay were all that comprised St. Francis’s nativity.
A Growth in Popularity
The concept of a nativity scene quickly grew in popularity and the idea spread across Europe. In fact, the earliest known carved version of a nativity dates back to 1284 and today is found at St. Mary Major Church in Rome.
Not only did the idea spread, it also became more elaborate. Soon nativity scenes were created that included the figures of Joseph and Mary, along with angels, shepherds, and wise men. Historically, the shepherds and wise men did not visit Christ simultaneously. The wise men arrived quite a bit after the Savior’s birth.
The Guinness World Record for the largest nativity scene is held by Thomas Kryza of the Czech Republic. It took 60 years to create and has 1,389 figures.
Using a Nativity Scene in Your Home
Whether your nativity scene is elaborate or simple, having one out during the month of December can help your children understand the meaning of the season happening all around them. Nativity scenes can spark conversations as kids wonder what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph or why Baby Jesus is surrounded by so many strangers. A nativity scene designed for children can be a chance for them to act out the Christmas story and help it become internalized in their heads and hearts.
There is a colorful, kid-friendly Nativity Playset that can be played with, hands on, now available on the Brother Francis Store!
Colleen Pressprich is a homeschooling mom of five and the author of Marian Consecration for Families with Young Children, The Women Doctors of the Church, and The Jesse Tree For Families. You can learn more about her, order her books, and read more of her writing at elevatortoheaven.com.