Advent Awakening: Exploring the Rich Traditions of Catholic Advent

What are Nativity Scenes?

Learn about nativity scenes, where they come from, and what they represent.

What are Nativity Scenes?
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Quiz

1. Please read the question carefully.
2. Think of an answer.
3. Click to check the answer.

❓ Which saint helped start the Nativity scene tradition?

Saint Francis

🧐 What is another name for a Nativity scene?

Creche or manger scene

🙋 Who is featured in most nativity scenes?

Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus, shepherds, the three wise men, and some animals.


Full Chapter

A nativity scene, which is sometimes called a crèche or manger scene, is a depiction of the birth of Jesus Christ as described in the Bible. It typically includes figures of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the shepherds, the Three Wise Men, and various animals. The custom of the nativity scene or displaying figures depicting the birth of Jesus Christ owes its origin to St. Francis of Assisi, who made the Christmas crèche or manger for Christmas Eve of 1223.

According to St. Bonaventure (d. 1274) in his The Life of St. Francis of Assisi recorded the story:
“It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His Name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.

A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Grecio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvelously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep. This vision of the devout soldier is credible, not only by reason of the sanctity of him that saw it, but by reason of the miracles which afterwards confirmed its truth.

For the example of Francis, if it be considered by the world, is doubtless sufficient to excite all hearts which are negligent in the faith of Christ; and the hay of that manger, being preserved by the people, miraculously cured all diseases of cattle, and many other pestilences; God thus in all things glorifying his servant, and witnessing to the great efficacy of his holy prayers by manifest prodigies and miracles.”

So what is a nativity scene? A nativity scene, which is sometimes called a crèche or manger scene, is a depiction of the birth of Jesus Christ as described in the Bible. It typically includes figures of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the shepherds, the Three Wise Men, and various animals. It can be life-sized or tiny wooden figures. They are displayed inside and outside of Christian homes and churches during the Advent and Christmas seasons. They have their origin in St. Francis of Assisi, who made the Christmas crèche or manger for Christmas Eve of 1223.

Nativity Scene Blessing

When the manger is set up in the home, it is appropriate that it be blessed by a parent or another family member.

All make the sign of the cross as the leader says:

Our help is in the name of the Lord.
R/. Who made heaven and earth.

One of those present or the leader reads a text of sacred Scripture, for example, Luke 2:1 (lines 1-8) or Isaiah 7:10 (lines 10-15, the birth of Emmanuel).

Reader: The Gospel of the Lord.

R/. Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

The leader prays with hands joined:

God of every nation and people,
from the very beginning of creation
you have made manifest your love:
when our need for a Savior was great
you sent your Son to be born of the Virgin Mary.
To our lives he brings joy and peace,
justice, mercy, and love.

Lord,
bless all who look upon this manger;
may it remind us of the humble birth of Jesus,
and raise our thoughts to him,
who is God-with-us and Savior of all,
and who lives and reigns forever and ever.
R/. Amen.

source: History of the Nativity Scene. USCCB.