What Is a Nativity Scene?

wooden nativity set

Nativit Scenes

A nativity scene is a special exhibition depicting the birth of Jesus. This is a Christian tradition which is done during the Christmas season in homes, shopping malls, churches and other places. All nativity scenes display figures representing Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus. Animals like sheeps and donkey are often exhibited along with other biblical characters like the Magi and their camels, angels and shepherds. Model figures are often used to put on display various nativity scenes but some cultures recreate the nativity scene in which real people and animals participate in the exhibit and are called living nativity scenes.


Saint Francis of Assisi is widely credited for creating the first live nativity scene in 1223 to encourage the worship of Christ. He was inspired after visiting the Holy Land where he had been shown Jesusí supposed birthplace. After Pope Honorius III gave his blessing to the live nativity scene, it was staged in a cave near Greccio with real humans and animals playing Biblical roles. His nativity scene has become popular in the Christian communities and spread throughout the Christian world.

While living nativity scenes are still being done today, they were eventually replaced with statues and model figures. Elaborate exhibitions in intricate landscape settings replaced most live nativity scenes. In the late 19th century, nativity scenes using model figures had become hugely popular in the Christian world and beyond. Nativity figures made from paper, wax, wood and ivory became widely available to the general public.

Over the years, different Christian traditions came up in different countries around the world. Colourful szopka or nativity scenes are popular in Poland while baking a mince pie in the shape of the manger is a popular Christmas tradition in England. In Austria and Southern Germany, hand cut wooden nativity figures are common.


Nativity scenes have not changed much ever since it was first introduced as a Christian tradition. Churches and other public places like shopping malls still decorate and exhibit nativity scenes during Christmas time.

Static nativity scenes using model figures and statues have been popular for centuries. These nativity scenes are either displayed indoors or outdoors and in some cases, both. These displays always consist of model figures of the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Other biblical characters like the Magi are included with later additions like shepherds and angels. Animals have also been prominent in nativity scenes. Donkeys and oxen have always been part of the nativity scenes with sheeps and camels as later additions. Almost all nativity scenes are depicted in a stable or manger while others are in caves.

Most home nativity scenes are displayed a few months leading up to Christmas day and packed away a few days after while churches keep nativity scenes on display until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

Due to environmental implications of plastic, many homes display eco-friendly nativity scenes made from sustainable materials like wood. Wooden nativity scenes have been around for centuries but they have remained popular because of their sustainability and timeless appeal.

Next Up: How to Choose the Best Nativity Set