St Francis of Assisi is credited with the first Nativity scene, a live one, in 1223 near his hermitage in Greccio:
Now three years before his death it befell that he was minded, at the town of Greccio, to celebrate the memory of the Birth of the Child Jesus, with all the added solemnity that he might, for the kindling of devotion. That this might not seem an innovation, he sought and obtained license from the Supreme Pontiff, and then made ready a manger, and bade hay, together with an ox and an ass, be brought unto the spot. The Brethren were called together, the folk assembled, the wood echoed with their voices, and that august night was made radiant and solemn with many bright lights, and with tuneful and sonorous praises. The man of God, filled with tender love, stood before the manger, bathed in tears, and overflowing with joy. Solemn Masses were celebrated over the manger, Francis, the Levite of Christ, chanting the Holy Gospel. Then he preached unto the folk standing round of the Birth of the King in poverty, calling Him, when he wished to name Him, the Child of Bethlehem, by reason of his tender love for Him. A certain knight, valorous and true, Messer John of Greccio, who for the love of Christ had left the secular army, and was bound by closest friendship unto the man of God, declared that he beheld a little Child right fair to see sleeping in that manger. Who seemed to be awakened from sleep when the blessed Father Francis embraced Him in both arms. This vision of the devout knight is rendered worthy of belief, not alone through the holiness of him that beheld it, but is also confirmed by the truth that it set forth, and withal proven by the miracles that followed it. For the ensample of Francis, if meditated upon by the world, must needs stir up sluggish hearts unto the faith of Christ, and the hay that was kept back from the manger by the folk proved a marvellous remedy for sick beasts, and a prophylactic against divers other plagues, God magnifying by all means His servant, and making manifest by clear and miraculous portents the efficacy of his holy prayers. (Life of St. Francis of Assisi, by St. Bonaventure, Chapter VIII, Para 7).
Pope Honorius blessed the practice, and Within a hundred years every church in Italy was expected to have a nativity scene at Christmastime. Eventually, statues replaced human and animal participants, and static scenes grew to elaborate affairs with richly robed figurines placed in intricate landscape settings.
While Protestantism sometimes venerates the practice, using Nativity Scenes to welcome our Lord is really a Catholic practice. In 1982, Pope John Paul II inaugurated the annual tradition of placing a nativity scene on display in the Vatican City in the Piazza San Pietro before the Christmas Tree. In 2006, the nativity scene featured seventeen new figures of spruce on loan to the Vatican from sculptors and wood sawyers of the town of Tesero, Italy in the Italian Alps. The figures included peasants, a flutist, a bagpipe player and a shepherd named Titaoca. Twelve nativity scenes created before 1800 from Tesero were put on display in the Vatican audience hall.
The Vatican nativity scene for 2007 placed the birth of Jesus in Joseph’s house in Nazareth (rather than in Bethlehem), based upon an interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew. Mary was shown with the newborn infant Jesus in a room in Joseph’s house. To the left of the room was Joseph’s workshop while to the right was a busy inn—a comment on materialism versus spirituality. The Vatican’s written description of the diorama said, “The scene for this year’s Nativity recalls the painting style of the Flemish School of the 1500s.” The scene was unveiled on December 24 and remained in place until February 2, 2008 for The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Ten new figures were exhibited with seven on loan from the town of Tesero and three—a baker, a woman, and a child—donated to the Vatican. The decision for the atypical setting was believed to be part of a crackdown on fanciful scenes erected in various cities around Italy. In Naples, Italy, for example, Elvis Presley and Prime Minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi, were depicted among the shepherds and angels worshipping at the manger.
In 2008, the province of Trento, Italy provided sculpted wooden figures and animals as well as utensils to create depictions of daily life. The scene featured seventeen figures with nine depicting the Holy Family, the Magi, and the shepherds. The nine figures were originally donated by Saint Vincent Pallotti for the nativity at Rome’s Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in 1842 and eventually found their way to the Vatican. They are dressed anew each year for the scene. The 2008 scene was set in Bethlehem with a fountain and a hearth representing regeneration and light. The same year, the Paul VI Audience Hall exhibited a nativity designed by Mexican artists.
Since 1968, the Pope has officiated at a special ceremony in St. Peter’s Square on Gaudete Sunday that involves blessing hundreds of mangers and Babies Jesus for the children of Rome. In 1978, 50,000 schoolchildren attended the ceremony.
Many Parishes own an elaborate manger scene, which tends to be the most expensive possession of the parish. These are usually donated by parishioners. They can be very simple and modern, or elaborate, and more like heirloom. One company, I’ve found has a four-piece starter set, which includes Mary, Joseph, the Infant Jesus, and the Crib for $19,000.
In the provinces of the Philippines, the people really get ready for Christmas. One Diocese, the Diocese of Tarlac, holds a Nativity contest (in the language, Belen). Every parish has a huge nativity scene, much of it in native dress, with native animals. Some I’ve seen, Joseph and the Angel are wearing Barong Tagalog, and there’s lechon being roasted and cow, ox, ducks, chickens and a cat.
All of this is to make you think a little, in your preparation for Christmas every year. The message of St. Francis was to remember the reason for the season, and regardless of any atheist billboard theology, you cannot have Christmas without Christ.