Understanding the Nativity Scene

Nativity scene with Three Wise Men and animals

As one of the most powerful and popular symbols of Christmas in the Christian world, the nativity scene is familiar to everyone. Nativities can be carvings, art, ceramics, or even living depictions of the night of Jesus’ birth.

The scenes contain the same five basic elements: Baby Jesus in a manager, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and barn animals. Often the Three Wise Men are added to the scene.

This iconic symbol of Christian hope and redemption celebrates one of the most important events in the history of mankind: the birth of Jesus.

The Story Behind the Nativity Scene

Saint Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene, or crèche (these terms are used interchangeably), to promote the true significance of Christmas. He wanted to remind everyone that Baby Jesus was born into a humble, poor, but loving environment. He felt Catholics were missing the message of the Gospel because they were ensnared in materialism.

On Christmas Eve in 1223, Saint Francis started what would later become one of the most widespread and familiar Christmas traditions of all time. Outside Greccio, in a cave, he re-created Jesus’ birth and its modest conditions to remind people of how Christianity has never been (and never will be) about material richness. Rather, Christianity revolves around spirituality and worship. Catholicism has nothing to do with earthly wealth, and everything to do with God’s love and the forgiveness of sin through His sacrifice of His only Son.

A few decades later, in 1260, Saint Bonaventure described the beauty and awe in the scene created by Saint Francis. His description and praise resulted in St. Francis’ nativity scene becoming a permanent part of Christian tradition.

Christ Child in manger scene

The Common Symbolism of the Nativity Scene

Saint Francis created the original nativity scene using live animals and hay in a cave. Today, live nativity scenes are still very popular, but other methods of reenacting the birth of Jesus are more common, whether it is an olive wood carving or an elaborate icon.

The presence of animals is an important element of any nativity scene. Saint Francis used an ox and an ass in the original because he wanted to portray the extremely humble conditions under which our Lord and Savior Jesus was born.

Most believe the ox represents patience and the people of Israel. The donkey represents Gentiles, humility, and readiness to serve. Brought together, these animals tell the story of Christianity—and, ultimately, the story of a world united under the name of God and his Son, Jesus.

The central character in the nativity is Baby Jesus in his manger. Most scenes depict him with open arms inviting us to accept salvation.

The Virgin Mary is sometimes larger than other characters and usually wears a red gown representing blood. Her cloak is blue, symbolizing the sky and heaven, conveying she is the link between heaven and earth.

The Three Wise Men represent different continents—Africa, Asia, and Europe—and sometimes they are portrayed in different age groups, representing the various life stages. Their gifts are also significant. Gold represents Baby Jesus’ kingship, incense symbolizes His divinity, and myrrh foreshadows His death.

The shepherds represent the common man.

Nativity scene with Three Wise Men and animals

Some Not-So-Common Symbolism Expressed in the Nativity Scene

Sometimes there are some subtle differences in various versions of the nativity scene that have important symbolic meaning. For example, the Virgin Mary is often depicted with her hand clutched over her heart. This refers to the verse in St. Luke that states “But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

Final Thoughts

The most important thing about the nativity scene is its message. Our Heavenly Father sent His own son to earth to be sacrificed for our sins. Those who believe in Him may receive forgiveness and eternity in heaven.

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