History of the Nativity

At some stage in your life, Christian or not, you will come across a nativity scene. And more than likely, you will know that the scene depicts the birth of Jesus. You will recognise the characters of Mary and Joseph, the wise men, some shepherds and a few stable animals. It is also likely you’ll see an angel.

But do you know the true history and origins of the Nativity Scene?

It was actually Saint Francis who staged the first Nativity Scene in 1223.

According to Saint Bonaventure’s biography, The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Francis got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals (an ox and an ass) in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He invited the villagers to look upon the scene while he preached about the ‘babe of Bethlehem’.

Within a couple of centuries, the nativity scene’s popularity took off. Nativity scenes had spread throughout Europe. In later years, scenes began incorporating the characters of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. The familiar cast of characters we see in modern nativity scenes include: baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the wise men, the shepherds, the angel, and animals.

In the New Testament’s four gospels, only Matthew and Luke describe Jesus’ birth. Matthew mentions the wise men, while Luke mentions shepherds. No account mentions the wise men and the shepherds together. In fact, Matthew’s account mentions the wise men followed the star to Jesus’ home after his birth. Nor are donkeys, cattle or sheep mentioned in any accounts.

However, the modern day nativity scene has become a tradition and is a condensed version of an historical event – the story of Jesus’ birth. Focusing on the nativity helps to spread religious devotion, encourages families and friends to have an authentic and prayerful devotion to the Holy family, the baby Jesus and the incarnation.

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