While they’re not ubiquitous, nativity scenes are a common feature throughout Christian homes during the festive period. For many, they’re a reminder that Christmas was originally intended as a celebration of the birth of Jesus, and some places even go as far as having “live cribs” with real animals and actors to play shepherds and the wise men.
But how much do you know about the scenes? It turns out, there’s more to them than meets the eye…
1. They’re older than non-Latin bibles…
Popularised by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 after he got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a live manger, nativity scenes brought the story of Christmas to people in a language they could relate to about 300 years before the first non-Latin bibles appeared.
2. …but the term still comes from Latin.
The word Nativity has its origins in the Latin verb nasci, which means “to be born.” Nasci soon developed in Latin into nativitas, meaning “birth,” which passed through Middle French as “nativité” before entering English in the 14th century as “nativity”.
3. The first one was said to contain magical hay
According to St. Bonaventure, St. Francis’ biographer, the hay used by St. Francis in the first nativity scene could miraculously cure local cattle diseases and pestilences.
4. They’re biblically inaccurate
The supporting cast featured in nativity scenes – the three wise men and the shepherds – are not biblically accurate when featured in their entirety. Out of the four gospels, only Matthew and Luke talk about Jesus’ birth: Matthew mentions wise men, and Luke comments on shepherds, but nowhere do they appear together. And nobody mentions animals like a donkey, cattle or other farmyard animals.
5. There is a ‘correct’ way to set up a nativity scene
You might know that Mary and Joseph should be placed on either side of the manger, but did you know that Mary should closer to the baby Jesus because of her sacred relationship with Him? And while the wise men and the shepherds should be in a circle around the stable, the wise men are supposed to be furthest away because they arrived last.