The Nativity scene with the crib of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, three Kings, and assorted animals has become a feature of shopping malls, churches, and millions of homes at Christmas. But it wasn’t always so. The association of the birth of Jesus with the Winter Solstice in December was a tough sell for the church to medieval peasants who just wanted to party through the bleak midwinter. And even some Christians didn’t buy into the idea of December 25 being a holy day.
The neglected Nativity scene
We assume the Nativity has always been at the centre of Christmas, but December 25 was just one of twelve days of festivities that borrowed heavily from earlier pagan practices. Some early Christians and the later Puritans found the whole Christmas thing very dubious and far too linked to the pagan Winter Solstice rituals for their liking. So, they ignored it.
Therefore, the crib wasn’t a feature of Christmas celebrations until the Middle Ages. And even then, it was a late addition. You might have been more likely to find a pagan Yule log or decorated tree in some parts of Europe than a Nativity scene – even after the locals had converted to Christianity,
FIND OUT MORE: Medieval Christmas and its pagan influences
Saint Francis creates his crib and Nativity scene
Saint Francis of Assisi was one of several charismatic medieval Christian figures who sought to put a stronger spiritual backbone into the church – and to bring people closer to Christ. His doctrine was almost pantheistic believing that God was in nature including its many animals as well as the “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” up in the sky (which ironically echoes many pagan beliefs about solar and lunar deities).
Contemporary accounts claim that Saint Francis was a big fan of Christmas – but not necessarily the way it was being celebrated at the time in the early 13th century. He could have visited any one of thousands of villages across Europe and witnessed scenes of wild drunkenness and debauchery that would have crushed his spirit. No doubt he was more than aware of how most people celebrated the birth of Christ. By ignoring its significance and reaching for the booze and rich food.
To counter this, Francis decided to create a Nativity scene in the Italian town of Greccio with real people, live animals, and a baby Jesus in a manger. It would replicate the scene in Bethlehem as described in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. Permission was granted by Pope Honorius III and the crib was created. It was an instant hit with medieval folk and its success has continued to this day.
Moravians bring the Nativity scene to the United States
Americans have long embraced the Nativity scene as part of their Christmas alongside Santa Claus and other elements that have a much weaker association with the bible story.
The Moravians were Christians influenced by the doctrines of John Huss and they fled persecution in Europe, settling in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. They brought the Nativity scene tradition with them as did Roman Catholic settlers in the Americas.
The idea of bringing the Nativity scene into the home may have started with the French Revolution in 1789. The revolutionaries hated the Roman Catholic church but loved a good Nativity scene. So, people began to create them in their homes as opposed to going to church for the experience.
Was the baby Jesus a rich child?
But have Nativity scenes misrepresented Jesus and his family?
Some evangelicals have tried to argue that Jesus wasn’t poor at all but a rich kid. Why would three kings have come bearing such extravagant gifts as gold, frankincense, and myrrh if Jesus had no social standing? This has been a popular line for those TV evangelists wanting to reconcile being fantastically wealthy with their faith. It doesn’t convince everybody of course.
But it addresses a nagging contradiction for some American pastors who preach the virtue of capitalism and getting rich while having to answer an awkward question. Why was Jesus Christ so poor if being rich is a good and holy thing? And their response – he wasn’t. It’s all a (socialist) misreading of scripture.
The crib of Jesus is transformed into something you’d experience on the MTV show Cribs. No stable or cave but the expensive and garish home of a celebrity. Certainly not an impoverished Judaean!