The nativity or manger scene is the representation of the scene of Jesus birth. Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 in a cave near Greccio (Italy). After this first occasion, nativity scenes were usually displayed in churches during Christmas season.
The nativity or manger scene is the representation of the scene of Jesus birth. Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 in a cave near Greccio (Italy). After this first occasion, nativity scenes were usually displayed in churches during Christmas season. These nativity scenes showed figurines made of terracotta, paper, wood or wax. It must be said that that there are precedents of this nativity scene tradition that can be related to the Christian religious cult. From the XIV century onwards, the display of nativity scenes was consolidated as a tradition in the Italian Peninsula. From there, it spread to the rest of Europe, first as an ecclesiastical tradition, then as an aristocratic one and finally as a popular event. In Spain it became popular in the XVIII century, when the King Carlos VII of Naples became King of Spain. He promoted the tradition of nativity scenes among aristocracy. This practice became thus popular throughout Spain and America. Countries in which the nativity scene tradition is popular include Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovak Republic, among others. Nativity scenes are also built in South America and ,nowadays, in the USA. The protestant tradition, due to its iconoclast ideas, rejects nativity scenes. When Anglicanism was consolidated in England, figurines in nativity scenes were burned. In 1601 the Bethelem Ban Law was passed, with death penalty for those who ignored it. This law was eliminated in the XIX century, with the consolidation of religious tolerance.
There are different types of nativity scenes, since each country and region has got its own tradition. Basic distinctions can be established:
static nativity scenes, in which figurines do not move versus animated ones, provided with electronic or mechanic devices that allow figurines to do repetitive movements
open or panoramic nativity scenes that can be seen from at least three sides and closed ones that can only be seen from the front side
Further classifications can be established depending on the technique which has been used to build the nativity scene. Popular nativity scenes are built using basic materials. Artists may use very sophisticated techniques, trying to make the scene and the landscapes very realistic. The style of figurines also allows us to distinguish among different types of nativity scenes: biblical (also called Palestine or Hebrew ones) that recreate the landscapes and traditions in Palestine at the time of Jesus birth; local or regional ones, that recreate landscapes and traditions of the place where the artist comes from; modern nativity scenes which tend to be abstract and use non-conventional materials.
Nativity scenes can be found in different sizes, from miniature ones to those who can be displayed in different house locations such as under the Christmas Tree or in the fireplace. We can even find nativity scenes that need an entire room to be displayed. Monumental nativity scenes are usually built outdoors, using natural locations, and are often the result of cooperation among different artists.
As it has been highlighted before, there are different national or regional differences within the nativity scene tradition. For instance, Polish nativity scenes are usually made of cardboard and wood, reproducing Slavic temples. Paper-cut nativity scenes are very common in the Czech Republic. Manger scenes in Catalonia include a figurine called ‘caganer’ which represents a peasant defecating. This is believed to be related to agrarian traditions to promote fields fertility. In Jerez there is a permanent display of ‘Salve, Emmanuel’, a monumental nativity scene with sound and light effects. In Provence, in the South of France, nativity scenes usually include painted clay figurines called ‘saints’. They represent different professions that are common in the region. In Venezuela, in the Andes region, there is tradition called ‘Paradura del Niño’, in which people raised Jesus Christ. They use banana leaves and colonial houses of multiple colours. In several countries in South America the nativity scene is displayed after Christmas. In Perú, the nativity scene is dismantled on the 6th of January in a ceremony called ‘Bajada de Reyes’. Friends and relatives are invited to this ceremony.