It’s a hand-painted set that came with a tiny, wood-carved stable covered in fake hay and moss.
I got it at Wal-Mart, of all places, and who knows, maybe one day, I’ll have a really nice one – much like the one I’ve seen in the windows of the Catholic Charities building in downtown Minneapolis or the likes of the set I’ve seen displayed at my parents’ church in southwest Minnesota : one made of porcelain, has real, rich fabrics for the clothes, faux hair on the animals, straw…about as real as it can get (with the exception of a live Nativity, of course).
I also remember my mother’s set well. Hers was much like mine, just a tad larger and it came with an angel…a beautiful, glorious angel that “floated” above her stable.
I’m sure most of you have a set or you at least know someone who does.
Nativity scenes, also called manger scenes, have been a popular Advent and Christmas decoration for homes, parishes and public places for hundreds of years.
St. Francis of Assisi is credited for creating the first nativity in 1223. He was an Italian Catholic friar and preacher. He wanted to place the “emphasis of Christmas upon the worship of Christ rather than upon secular materialism and gift giving,” so he staged a living nativity scene.
Humans and animals (oxen and a donkey) were cast in Biblical roles and were staged in a cave near Grecio, Italy. St. Francis set up an empty manger, using a feeding trough to serve as Jesus’ crib. Through these visual aids, he wanted everyone to impress more deeply into their understanding how Christ came into the world in such poverty and simplicity.
St. Bonaventure shares St. Francis’s story here:
“It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise…The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, he called Him the Babe of Bethlehem…”
You can look up the remainder of this story at your local library or a trusted source on the internet, and I hope that what I’ve shared here will inspire you to look at your Nativity as more than just a pretty Christmas decoration; as a tool of meditation and a reminder on the humility, simplicity and poverty that Jesus took on at the moment of his incarnation and of what he did out of his boundless love for us.