Tradition says that Francis of Assisi created the very first Christmas nativity scene in AD 1223 after a trip to the Holy Land and Christ’s birthplace. So began a new tradition that took root in many Western countries. Today, we can see nativity scenes in front of churches and homes, on street corners, and in pageants every Christmas season.
The word nativity is taken from the Latin nativus, which means “arisen by birth.” A nativity scene is a representation of the night of Jesus’ birth as depicted in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Nativities can be pictures, models, live demonstrations, or carvings, but they usually contain the same elements: the Christ Child in a manger; His mother, Mary; His earthly father, Joseph; shepherds; angels; various barn animals; a star; and, sometimes, three wise men bringing gifts. A nativity scene is most often set inside a stable or cave.
Displaying a Christmas nativity scene is a long-standing tradition, but it can also present a bit of a skewed view of the actual events of Jesus’ birth. While each person depicted in a traditional nativity scene is a part of the Christmas story, not all the characters were present in one place on the night Jesus was born. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were in a stable that night due to the overcrowding in Bethlehem’s inn (Luke 2:7), but the Bible never mentions whether or not animals were present—in fact, it never even mentions a stable. The shepherds, once told of Jesus’ arrival, left their flocks to worship the newborn King (Luke 2:16). However, the angels, which are often part of nativity scenes, bore the good news to the shepherds in the fields (Luke 2:8–14). As far as we know, there were no angels flying visibly over the place where Jesus was when the shepherds arrived. In addition, the wise men (the Bible never says how many there were) were also probably not present that first night. The magi visited Jesus some time later, when He was in a house (Matthew 2:1–11).
Despite these small details, a Christmas nativity scene is a wonderful reminder of what happened the night Jesus was born. Ever since Adam and Eve’s sin, our relationship with God has been marred and broken (Genesis 3; Romans 5:12). Out of love, God sent His Son in human form “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). To that end, Jesus Christ was born in the town of Bethlehem. Modern Christmas nativity scenes help to proclaim Christ’s birth and the true “reason for the season.”