The History of Christmas Nativity Sets Around the World

Nativity Scene

Christmas nativity sets are essential seasonal decorations for Christian households. These depictions of the birth of Christ in a manger are based on the gospels of Matthew and Luke. While nativity sets are made of different materials and vary in complexity, they are a reminder of what the Christmas season is all about.


The first nativity scene was credited to St. Francis of Assisi in 1223. This scene in Grecco, Italy used living people as the nativity characters. It was an instructional tool to teach about the birth of Jesus. It became a popular display and it use spread across Europe.

Miniature Christmas nativity sets became household decorations for Christian families. They reflected the area culture and were usually made of local materials, such as wood, terracotta or straw. All nativity sets, no matter how they vary in details, have the same basic characters:

  • Baby Jesus, who may not be included in the scene until either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day
  • Virgin Mary
  • Joseph
  • Shepherds
  • The Three Wise Men of Magi, sometimes added after Christmas
  • Animals, such as donkeys, cows and sheep
  • Angels

Christmas Nativity Sets Around the World

Many countries around the world have added their own special touches to their nativities.


In France, a nativity scene is called a crèche, which means crib. Its usage began during the French Revolution in the 18th century. These elaborate scenes depict an entire rural French village representing Bethlehem. They include houses, wells and shops. Tiny villagers are included, all of which have come to view the Baby Jesus. French crèches are often made out of terracotta or hand-painted porcelain. This elaborate display is traditionally taken down on Christmas Day.


As the home of the first nativity display, Italy has large, detailed scenes called presepe or presepi. These are the principle decorations for Christmas in Italy. They also depict an entire village, usually in traditional Italian folk attire. They are put up on December 8, which is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and taken down on January 6, Epiphany. The Baby Jesus is added on Christmas Eve.


In Austria, nativity scenes were traditionally made from paper or painted tin. The paper nativities began as a business promotion of house painters, who constructed them for customers during the slow business months.


Called a nacimiento in Mexico, the nativities are the principle household Christmas decorations. They include Mexican Christmas characters, such as the rooster, who crows at the birth of Christ; Lucifer, the fallen angel, who looks to tempt the shepherds; and a fish, a character from a popular Christmas carol. The nacimientos are elaborate displays and figures are added to the collection each year.


In Columbia, the scene is called a pesebre. It includes typical Columbian features. The landscape is the Columbian countryside and all figures are in traditional Columbian folk attire. The Virgin Mary wears the shawl and hat of a rural countrywoman. Joseph wears a poncho.


The Christmas nativity sets in Poland date back to the 13th century. Called szopka, they are made from simple materials, such as wood, foil or cardboard. They are customarily carried by carolers to each house. The szopka can vary greatly in size, from tiny handheld versions to large, life-size pieces. Each year there is a competition in Krakow awarding prizes for the best szopka.

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The History of Christmas Nativity Sets Around the World