We have a lovely nativity scene collection on display that was graciously loaned to us from Augustans, Sam and Kathy Fouts. As I was putting in each Mary and Joseph and each little baby Jesus I was wondering about when people began decorating with nativity scenes.
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223. It was a "living" one intended to encourage people to worship the birth of Christ. This inspiration was born from a recent visit to the Holy Land where he had been shown Jesus's traditional birthplace. Other communities across Europe started creating their own "living" nativities. Eventually works of art were created depicting the nativity. More and more elaborate exhibitions were created with wax and ivory figurines garbed in rich fabrics set against intricate landscapes.
Distinctive nativity scenes and traditions have been created around the world and are displayed during the Christmas season in churches, homes, shopping malls and other venues. A tradition in England, involves baking a mince pie in the shape of a manger to hold the Christ child until dinnertime when the pie was eaten. In the 17th century, the Puritans banned Christmas celebrations all together and passed specific legislation to outlaw such pies calling them "Idolaterie in crust"
The public display of nativity scenes has not been without controversy. In federal court pleadings, the New York school system defended its ban on nativity scenes by claiming the historicity of the birth of Jesus was not actual fact. In another instance, a suburban Philadelphia Pennsylvania school banned a nativity scene while permitting a menorah display. The school's principal stated "Judaism is not just a religion, it's a culture".
Whether you choose to display a nativity scene or not, I hope you remember not only the long and rich history of the nativity scene but also it's representation of why we celebrate Christmas.