Outdoor Nativity scenes are used by Christians to display their belief that Christmas is first a celebration about the birth of Jesus Christ. Some display Nativity scenes in addition to other Christmas accessories, while others display Nativity scenes instead of Christmas trees and other decor. Nativity scenes also are displayed at churches to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Nativity scenes represent the birth of Jesus, which is represented in a manger scene. The scene is artistically presented with figures or, in the case of live nativities, humans and animals. Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, sheep, donkeys, three wise men and shepherds are featured in the Nativity scene. These figures are typically set in a barn-type structure with a star displayed above.
Many communities that want to display public Nativities have experienced a backlash, because creating such a display violates the separation of church and state. Some communities insist that all religions must be represented. Another issue is that when churches display outside Nativities, they can be vandalized.
The Nativity scene originated when St. Francis of Assisi returned to Italy from Egypt and Acre in the year 1220. Some say his representation of the birth of Jesus in 3-dimensional forms was a copy of what he had seen on his travels. There are different accounts as to how the first Nativity was represented. One account by biographer Thomas of Celano says that Francis placed a straw-filled manger (a trough used to feed animals) between a real ox and donkey. This scene was used as the alter for Christmas Mass. It is reported that the mass was conducted in a cave near the town of Creccio.
Modern-day Nativity scenes represent the vision of the artist that creates the scene as well as the traditions of the locality. In Provence, France, Nativity scenes are made from hundreds of small, painted clay figures. The Hague has a yearly tradition of a life-size Nativity with many zoo animals, including camels and oxen. Worldwide, Nativity scenes come in many sizes, from miniature to life-size and bigger. They are created in ceramic and stone, carved from wood and even made in inflatable versions. It is not uncommon for live Nativity scenes with real humans and animals to be used for special occasions. Nativity scenes are also used inside and outside of homes in addition to churches and public places.
Nativity scenes are significant in that they are a reminder of the true meaning of Christmas for many Christians. They counter the commercial nature and bustle of the holiday season, reminding Christians that the season is not so much about shopping, toys and exchanging gifts, but instead about the gift of Christ to the world.