The Nativity: What is it and Where Did it Come From?

Willow Creek | December 11, 2022

As of December 1st, 2020, Ayuntamiento de Alicante, Spain holds the world record for the World’s largest nativity scene with their baby Jesus measuring nearly 11 feet! It certainly provides a literal perspective for the statement “He is over all.”

So, what is the nativity and why is it called “the nativity?” The word “nativity” can cover a broad range of depictions of Christ’s birth, anything from a painting to a set of statues to a live-action show featuring a host of animals and actors in costume.

Where did the Nativity come from? The first nativity was depicted in a wall painting in the catacomb of St. Valentine from around 380 A.D. For the following nine or so centuries, art was the only place you could see any visual representation of the birth of Christ. 

What is the Meaning of Christmas?

However, in 1223, the first live nativity was staged by St. Francis of Assisi in Italy and was a modest affair. The nativity featured a manger with hay, an ox, and a donkey which all acted as a live backdrop for a sermon (church teaching) on the birth of the Messiah. 

This first nativity was pretty significant because at the time most church services were given in Latin, a language not everyone spoke; even if those giving the sermons told the Christmas story, few could pick up on the events and significance because of the language barrier. These reenactments (or miracle plays as they were sometimes called) were one of the only ways regular folks could learn Bible stories.

From there the tradition grew and spread throughout Europe.

What is Advent?

So, where is the nativity scene in scripture? The answer might surprise you: it’s not! St. Francis and other early nativity scenes drew heavily from the religious art of the time, not scripture. The Bible tells of the arrival of the wise men (Matthew 2:1-12) and the shepherds (Luke 2:8-20), and a manger is also mentioned because there was no room in the inn (Luke 2:7), but the traditional nativity stable and animals may not have been a part of the original story, for they are not mentioned in scripture.

Today, the nativity scene is symbolic; it’s a representation of the wide variety of people who were brought together by Jesus’ birth and ministry (including the wise men and shepherds). Much like St. Francis, churches today use the nativity to illustrate that the birth of Jesus is for everyone

If you want to learn more about the nativity story you can click here for the Christmas Story in the Bible.

For all our Christmas content and answers to many more questions about Christmas, click here: What is Christmas? 


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