Most people don’t know much about the tradition of decorative ceramic nativity sets and where the custom began. To many in the United States, it’s simply a church, school, neighborhood or community project to get parishioners, kids and neighbors involved in the holiday spirit, but the truth is that this religious exhibition has been performed for thousands of years around the globe, and nativity scenes are known by many other names, such as a manger scene, a crèche, presepio in the religious tradition’s original Italian, Betlém in Czech, or simply as a Nativity.
Nativity sets are most commonly perceived as using arts and crafts to represent the birth of Jesus Christ, but a nativity scene can depict a number of other scenes, holy or otherwise; for example, a scene of the first Thanksgiving feast with Native Americans and the Jamestown settlers shows how a nativity can be used for historical or seasonal, as well as religious displays.
There are those who take things a step further and, instead of using arts and crafts for depiction, utilize performance and theatre to reenact these scenes in what are called living nativity scenes.
But what was the beginning of this seemingly age-old religious tradition that spawned myriad observances and practices, and, eventually, a world-wide market for ceramic Christmas ornaments?
Saint Francis of Assisi, the Patron Saint of Italy, a man known for the many stories regarding his miracles with animals, was also the first to create and stage the first live nativity scene. In 1223, after a trip to the Holy Land to see the birthplace of Christ, Saint Francis wished to get believers more involved in the worship of Jesus. He produced his nativity, and the event was massively successful and began the tradition in Catholic communities throughout Europe and, later on, across the world.
Today this tradition is celebrated in many different ways; as hobbies for the devout, for community building and refreshing, or even as a source of income, with nativity scenes for sale through local and online stores providing for those who wish to share their creativity and, in turn, for others to avail themselves of these tangible celebrations, and for Christians, to practice their faith at the same time.
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