In many families the nativity scene is an essential component of their Christmas decorations every year. Once Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus are lovingly set up in their stable, Christmas can come.
But why is the nativity scene set up at Christmas? And how should the nativity figures be arranged properly? It’s not only children who ask these questions as Christmas gets nearer.
The nativity scene, which is decorated in homes at Christmas every year, represents the Christmas story according to the Gospel of Matthew and Luke. It originates from early Christianity. Illustrations of the nativity scene from this time initially show the Baby Jesus alone in his crib in the stable at night, accompanied only by an ox and donkey. The other figures were gradually introduced to illustrations of nativity scenes later on.
Traditionally the nativity scene is set up just before Christmas as a very festive Christmas decoration. In many families though, they start putting up their Christmas decorations after the Sunday before Advent when the dead are commemorated at the end of November and so that they can delight in the sight of the nativity scene for longer and enjoy the anticipation of Christmas the nativity scene is often also brought out together with the first Christmas decorations.
The nativity figures can then either be added to the scene gradually as the figures appeared in the biblical Christmas story or arranged straight away when the crib is set up. While the first method can make the wait for Christmas seem shorter, similarly to the Advent calendar, the second approach has the advantage of the family being able to enjoy the whole nativity scene instantly.
The first version is also suitable for teaching children about what happens around Christmas.
The most important element of the nativity scene is the baby Jesus in the actual crib. Maria and Joseph watch over him on Christmas Eve. This scene is usually shown in the setting of a stable as this reflects the Christmas story in the Bible true to the original. However, some nativity scenes portray the crib with the Baby Jesus in a cave or tent. What is important for the context is the accommodation of the Holy Family in a very humble, modest setting as according to the Gospel of Luke and Matthew they were turned away from all the inns and had to make to do with the stable. Oxen and donkey are often part of the nativity scene, even though they are not actually mentioned in the Gospels. These stable animals symbolise the Baby Jesus’ simple and poor origins and accommodation though. These key figures in the nativity scene are usually all set up at Christmas.
The shepherds and their flocks are also portrayed in many nativity scenes. According to the Christmas story the Angel Gabriel appeared before the shepherds on Christmas Eve while they were tending their flocks in fields outside the gates of Bethlehem. He announced the birth of Jesus to them and that they would be shown the way to the stable and the new King by the star of Bethlehem.
That is why the star above the roof of the nativity stable should never be missing as it is the symbol for the joyful message of the birth of Jesus being announced to the whole world. The shepherds, usually two or three, portrayed with their sheep and sometimes a sheepdog, complete the nativity scene on Christmas Eve.
According to the Christmas story, more people arrive at the stable in Bethlehem in the days after Christmas Eve to welcome the Baby Jesus. In the Bible there is talk of wise men but how many of them and their names are not mentioned. The number, title Three Wise Men and the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar are the result of legends being created about the Christmas story. The wise men also followed the star of Bethlehem and bring gifts of gold, incense and myrrh with them.
In early illustrations, the wise men symbolise the three continents known in early Christianity, Europe, Africa and Asia, which is why the wise man Caspar is portrayed with dark skin. The Three Kinds are occasionally accompanied by elephants or camels as carrying or riding animals in nativity scenes.
The wise men can either be set up straight away with the nativity scene or added on the feast of Epiphany on 6th January. The nativity scene usually stays set up in homes until the end of Christmas. In former times, this was on 2nd February the feast of Candlemas, but in the meantime the Sunday after Epiphany or even Epiphany itself has established itself as the end of Christmas.
How the figures are arranged in the nativity scene is a question of taste at the end of the day. Naturally the Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph should be in the centre. Lighting inside the stable allows the scene to appear in a cosy light and the individual figures can be seen better. Setting up the figures as if they are having a conversation brings the scene to life, setting up the figures around the Baby Jesus forms best with the Christmas story according to the Gospel of Luke and Matthew. Some families also prefer the figures to be facing the observers.
However you set up your nativity scene and however long you enjoy this particularly festive decoration: We wish you a wonderful Christmas.