’Tis the season for the Christmas crèche, a depiction of the birth of Jesus displayed in churches, in homes and—sometimes controversially—on public property. In most of these scenes, the divine child lies on a bed of straw, watched over by Mary, Joseph and a few reclining animals. Shepherds arrive, and three Magi, or wise men, approach.

A tableau of sculptures or living beings, the Nativity scene (as well as the closely related Adoration of the Magi) traces its origins back some 1,500 years. The tradition has changed over time, taking on new meanings as Christianity itself has evolved. “More striking than single images or paintings,” wrote art historian Rudolf Berliner in the 1940s, “the crèche serves the religious purpose of impressing the imagination of the beholder as if he were witnessing the very Nativity.”

The first depictions of the infant Christ

Saint Francis of Assisi is often erroneously credited with creating the first crèche (a French word derived from the Latin cripia, or crib). According to his followers, he evoked the birth of Jesus by setting up a manger filled with hay, an ox and a donkey in Greccio, Italy, in 1223.

“By setting the scene in a real environment, Francis intended to provide the ordinary person with access to the divine in the created world,” says Felicity Harley-McGowan, an art historian at Yale University. “The divine did not have to be inside a structured church.”

Francis’ manger may have been the first recorded live Nativity scene. But it was far from the first visual depiction of Jesus’s early life.

Panel from Benozzo Gozzoli's Scenes From the Life of Saint Francis
Panel from Benozzo Gozzoli's Scenes From the Life of Saint Francis, 1452 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The New Testament provides few details of Christ’s birth. Of the four Gospels, only the Book of Luke presents the infant lying swaddled in the manger with Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and heavenly angels. Matthew describes the birth before turning to the travels of the Magi, who follow a guiding star while bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The Nativity narrative known today only emerged in the seventh century, with the circulation of what was believed to be an unknown Gospel by Matthew. (The text was later refuted as apocryphal.) “What’s fascinating about the evolution of the Nativity scene tradition is that although the story has its origins in the Gospels, the imagery of the birth of Christ that is now commonplace in art and church displays has post-biblical roots,” says Vanessa Corcoran, a historian at Georgetown University.

Before the Pseudo-Matthew Gospel provided a richer narrative, religious art centered on Jesus’s birth drew on the few details provided by the biblical Gospels. One of the oldest known renderings of the Adoration of the Magi, or the Epiphany, as the wise men’s visit is also known, is a late third- or early fourth-century wall painting in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. The work shows a seated Mary holding her baby as she receives gifts from the Magi. As Harley-McGowan and her husband, Andrew McGowan, a historian at Yale, wrote in a 2016 paper, the scene “attests that the Magi were now understood to be three in number; although Matthew had not counted them, three gifts for the Child are mentioned. … The emphasis is on their movement—the active seeking of God in his incarnate son.”

Depiction of the Adoration of the Magi on a fourth-century sarcophagus from the cemetery of Saint Agnes in Rome
Depiction of the Adoration of the Magi on a fourth-century sarcophagus from the cemetery of Saint Agnes in Rome Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Another early example of the Epiphany appears on a fourth-century marble sarcophagus from the cemetery of Saint Agnes in Rome. In this depiction, three camels join the Magi, who navigate by the light of a star above Mary and Jesus.

By the fifth century, elaborate portrayals of the Magi’s tribute had overtaken these relatively modest scenes. A mosaic completed around 435 at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, for instance, shows the infant Christ seated on a bejeweled throne, flanked by his mother; a mysterious woman; and a group of angels. The three Magi are featured prominently, but neither shepherds nor animals appear.

In the northern Italian city of Ravenna, meanwhile, a sixth-century mosaic depicts an enthroned Mary in imperial purple, attended by angels and holding her divine child as kings offer up gifts. Inscriptions above the three men identify them as Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar—names that would soon become commonly associated with the Magi.

Detail of sixth-century mosaic at the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy
Detail of sixth-century mosaic at the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Changing conceptions of Christ

The Adoration of the Magi remained a popular subject for centuries, inspiring such artists as Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Diego Velázquez. But while the story of the wise men’s visit is entwined with that of Jesus’s birth, the two eventually began to be marked on separate days, with the Adoration traditionally falling on January 6 and the Nativity on December 25. “With this removal of the Magi by a few days, the way was … clearer for the more developed iconography of the manger scene that we know,” wrote Harley-McGowan and McGowan in 2016. “In this new vision of the Nativity, the viewer could concentrate on the birth of the son of God in human form, on earth.”

As the Nativity scene gained traction, reflections of the infant Jesus’s humanity replaced the displays of divine majesty associated with the Magi. A late fourth- or early fifth-century marble relief on view at the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens, Greece, shows a swaddled baby lying in a manger, attended to only by an ox and a donkey.

A late fourth- or early fifth-century marble relief depicting Christ with an ox and a donkey
A late fourth- or early fifth-century marble relief depicting Christ with an ox and a donkey Zde via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.0

In Italy, Nativity scenes are called presepi, after praesepire, a Latin verb meaning to fence or enclose. Nativities are typically three-dimensional, involving statues, figurines or living participants.

Santa Maria Maggiore, the Roman basilica that houses an ancient mosaic of the Epiphany, boasts several ties to early Nativity scenes. According to Berliner, papal records indicate the church housed a reconstruction of the Nativity, perhaps containing sculptures of Mary and Jesus, as early as the fifth century. This theory is unconfirmed, but an 11th-century account hints at a continued association between Santa Maria Maggiore and the Christmas crèche.

As Maureen C. Miller, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley, writes in Clothing the Clergy: Virtue and Power in Medieval Europe, c. 800-1200, Pope Gregory VII was performing a Christmas mass at the basilica, “where a Nativity scene [had] been constructed near the main altar so that all [could] contemplate the event in salvation history being commemorated,” when he was kidnapped by armed men in 1075. Details of the tableau are scarce; far more information is available regarding a 13th-century crèche at Santa Maria Maggiore that survives to this day.

Marble Nativity sculptures created by Arnolfo di Cambio for Santa Maria Maggiore
Marble Nativity sculptures created by Arnolfo di Cambio for Santa Maria Maggiore Hugo D.K. via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Pope Nicholas IV, a Franciscan friar, commissioned the Nativity scene in 1292. Sculpted by Italian artist Arnolfo di Cambio, the marble statues were displayed alongside wooden fragments purported to belong to Jesus’s crib. (Church officials sent one of these cradle relics, which had been housed at Santa Maria Maggiore since the seventh century, back to Jesus’s birthplace of Bethlehem in 2019.) Though the Magi appear in the tableau, they are secondary to the central figures of Mary and Jesus.

Corcoran says, “It is essential to place Mary as a central figure in the Nativity scene because of her seminal role as the mother of God (a title defined by Catholic dogma at the Council of Ephesus in 431). Placing her squarely at the forefront of Nativity imagery solidifies her role in helping to bring about the savior of humankind.”

From feats of artistry to religious idolatry

During the Renaissance, the southern Italian city of Naples won acclaim for its extravagant Nativity scenes—a claim to fame that it retains today. In the late 15th century, brothers Pietro and Giovanni Alamanno created life-size sculptures of religious figures for display in local chapels, covering the likenesses in paint and gold leaf. A few decades later, around 1530, Saint Cajetan of Thiene designed a wooden Nativity scene featuring characters dressed like the Neapolitans of his day.

Cajetan’s presepio and others like it inspired a whole new genre of Nativity scenes fueled by the exuberance of the Baroque movement. Soon, artificial landscapes complete with caves, trees and hills—often crafted out of papier-mâché—replaced the painted cloth backdrops of Naples’ earlier presepi.

A Neapolitan Nativity scene at Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh
A Neapolitan Nativity scene at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh Pschemp via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0
Neapolitan Nativity scene at Santa Chiara in Naples
Neapolitan Nativity scene at Santa Chiara in Naples Sailko via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 3.0

Art historian Kristen Streahle says these lush scenes blended “biblical history and the reality of living in the countryside. People [saw] themselves in there.” Built on a large scale, the presepi were often “detailed and complex,” exhibiting a keen “interest in movement and life,” Streahle adds. At the Certosa di San Martino, a monastery overlooking the Bay of Naples, sculpted angels swoop down on wires.

The Christmas crèche tradition was “enthusiastically adapted not only by other orders of the Catholic Church but also by the laity, and even by Protestant countries,” wrote art historian Hanns Swarzenski in a 1967 essay. Small-scale yet equally elaborate Nativity scenes became popular, too, particularly among the elite: Sometime around 1567, Costanza Piccolomini d’Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi, commissioned more than 100 crèche figurines for display in her home, including camels carrying treasure, dogs, an elephant, a giraffe and even a unicorn.

Neapolitan nativity scenes’ “theatrical sense of grandeur and design” pushed back against Protestantism, a branch of Christianity that gained traction in Europe in the 16th century, says Streahle. Protestants “stressed a direct relationship with God,” rejecting religious icons and art—including depictions of Jesus’s birth—as idolatrous distractions.

“Crèches would have existed in medieval English and German churches but were often destroyed where Protestantism became ascendant,” McGowan explains. “The 17th-century Puritans were the most extreme in this regard.”

An 18th-century Nativity scene from Gutenzell-Hürbel, Germany
An 18th-century Nativity scene from Gutenzell-Hürbel, Germany Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

As Puritans and other religious exiles settled in the American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, however, attitudes toward the crèche softened. “The origins of Nativity figures for [early colonists] were as domestic decorations, not [religious] devotional objects,” McGowan says.

The Moravians, a Protestant denomination from what is now the Czech Republic, founded the city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on Christmas Eve in 1741. Like its namesake in the West Bank, Bethlehem is closely associated with Christmas celebrations. Early residents brought Nativity scenes known as putz, from the German word putzen, meaning to decorate, over from their home country. These tableaus included not just figures associated with the birth of Christ, but also recreations of the local landscape and elements of rural life.

The French, too, had their “little saints,” or santons. When churches shuttered during the late 18th-century French Revolution, the people of Provence clandestinely made these figurines—a mix of traditional Nativity participants and characters from everyday life. Neither the church nor the French First Republic could suppress the santons for long. By 1803, they were openly for sale at a fair in Marseille; in 1886, Marseille recorded the sale of 180,000 santons.

Santons, or "little saints" in French
Santons, or "little saints" in French Photo by Philippe Lissac / Godong / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Back in North America, Nativity scenes gained popularity in tandem with Christmas, which was first celebrated as a national holiday in the mid-19th century. Some, like the Moravians, crafted their sets by hand, while others purchased figurines crafted out of cardboard, plaster, lead, wood, porcelain and more. Nativities also took on new forms outside of the United States, reflecting Indigenous, Spanish and African influences across Latin America.

The modern Christmas crèche

In the 21st century, the Christmas crèche has become a subject of controversy, in large part due to the perennial debate over whether this religious symbol belongs on public property. Only in 2022, after six decades of existence, has the European Parliament allowed a Nativity scene to be set up in its Brussels headquarters. Previously, officials had feared offending nonbelievers, but this year, they decided the display was justified as a “special exhibition” commemorating the continent’s Christian history. The experiment may not be repeated.

To date, the U.S. Supreme Court has made two main rulings regarding nativity scenes on government-owned property. Broadly speaking, the court allows such tableaux as part of displays representing a wide range of holiday traditions (for instance, a crèche accompanied by a menorah and a statue of Santa Claus). Americans don’t fully agree with these distinctions: In 2014, 28 percent of individuals surveyed by the Pew Research Center said Christian symbols should be allowed on government property if accompanied by symbols of other faiths; forty-four percent said Christian symbols should be allowed regardless of whether other faiths are represented.

The Vatican's 2020 Nativity scene
The Vatican's 2020 Nativity scene Photo by Alessandra Benedetti / Corbis via Getty Images

In some cities, the debate over holiday displays has resulted in deliberately provocative crèches, including offerings from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Satanic Temple. Other unconventional Nativity scenes include the Vatican’s 2020 crèche, whose figurines drew comparisons to Darth Vader, astronauts and “Doctor Who” characters, and a 2021 tableau in New Orleans that saw Marge Simpson, the Three Stooges, Harry Potter, the Seven Dwarfs and the late sheriff of Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish stand alongside the Holy Family.

Meanwhile, in Naples, locals continue the tradition of intricate presepi, offering up contemporary figures in addition to mainstays like Mary and Christ. On the famed Via San Gregorio Armeno, stores sell figurines of pizza makers, soccer players, politicians and Pope Francis, who shares his name with the saint who first propelled the crèche into the collective imagination.

Though the Nativity scene has evolved in recent decades, one key aspect of the tradition remains. “The miniature world of the Nativity scene provides an opportunity for its viewers to imagine themselves within the holy narrative,” writes art historian Olaya Sanfuentes for MAVCOR Journal. “Creators of Nativity scenes represent themselves as contemporary participants within the historic event. … Since a person from any era can insert themselves and their environment into the scenery of the Nativity, the possibility of being part of this event is limitless.”