By Eli Pacheco

The Christmas nativity scene is a beloved part of holiday décor. But its meaning runs much deeper than garland and stockings. A Christmas Nativity scene depicts the reason for the season: Jesus Christ’s birth.  

Read on to learn the scene’s history, about Nativity scene animals and figures to include, and when to set it up. 

Where was the first Nativity scene? 

St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order, started this tradition in 1223. Also called a crèche or manger scene, the Nativity represents the Christmas miracle. Before this, churches often depicted Christ as an infant, but did not include manger scenes.  

Francis borrowed animals and straw to recreate Bethlehem on that holy night. All were set in a cave near town, with a wax figure of baby Jesus. People wore costumes depicting Mary and Joseph. 

It’s said the sight of the completed Christmas nativity scene brought Francis to tears of joy. 

What are Nativity scene animals? 

Did you know animals, usually a donkey and an ox, weren't allowed in Nativity scenes at one time? Pope Benedict XVI changed that when he vowed that Nativity scene animals would always be part of the Vatican's display. He cited the inclusion of such animals in the Bible stories of Christ's birth.  

The donkey and ox are popular in Nativity scenes, but other animals also appear in different regions. Here are the must-have Nativity scene figures. 

The Ox 

Finding an ox in a manger isn't a long shot, but finding mention of one in the Gospels for Christ's birth is. Yet, Nativity art and scenes depict this beast of burden as a silent witness on the first Christmas.  

The Ass 

The ass, with the ox, is one of the Nativity's oldest icons. The first known Nativity carving, circa AD 400, shows the ass and ox on either side of Christ.  

Other animals 

The Advent story resonates worldwide, and the animals used in other nations are symbolic. Here are some you might see among Nativity scene figures. 

Bears: Not common, but they symbolize strength and protection. 

Dogs: Innocence and loyalty mark a man's best friend. 

Elephants: Their presence represents intelligence and power. 

Foxes: Another uncommon addition, they bring a sense of adaptability and resourcefulness. 

Goats: Not a far cry from sheep, they represent provision. 

Llamas: Common in South American scenes for a local feel. 

Sheep: Often with shepherds, they represent humility. 

Zebras: African Nativity scenes might feature this striped creature. 

Who are the people in the Nativity Scene? 

From Mary and Joseph to those who ventured to Bethlehem, people played key roles in the Nativity. Here are the key figures.  

Baby Jesus 

Tradition often dictates who places Chris in the crib in the manger scene. One Italian custom says the oldest family member should do it. Another family tradition allows the oldest child to do this holy task. 

One custom is to wait until Christmas Day to add Jesus. Others have Him in the Nativity from the start. 

Mary and Joseph 

How often do we consider the people who raised Jesus as their own? Much of this young couple's journey is a walk of trust, of God, of their fate, and their ability to carry out God's will. A carpenter and a teenager are engaged and living a simple life before they’re asked to serve in this holy way. 

Mary and Joseph arrive at the Nativity on Christmas Eve, on either side of Baby Jesus. Some people replace Mary the next day with a figure depicting her cradling Jesus. 

The shepherds 

Imagine watching your flock at night, and seeing an angel descend from Heaven before you. What a wonderful and frightening sight. This happened to these servants, who ventured to Bethlehem to see the savior the angel told them of. Their early presence at the manger foreshadows Jesus' role as a shepherd of his people. 

Arrange the shepherds and their sheep farther from Jesus than Mary and Joseph. They can arrive as early as Christmas Day or the day after. 

Angel Gabriel 

The Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary before to inform her of God's plan. Many Nativity scenes include the Angel Gabriel presiding over the holy events. A host of angels watch over the family in the manger on Christmas Day in other Nativity scenes. 

Angels are often part of the Nativity scene from day one. You can also add them after Christmas. 

The wise men 

After Jesus' birth, the Magi followed an unusual star in the sky to Bethlehem. They were Persian priests, sometimes tied to Zoroastrianism. King Nebuchadnezzar appointed David to lead these religious professors, scholars, and philosophers, who came bearing gifts. 

David taught them of the Messiah's prophecy, and they waited many years for Jesus' birth. Some accounts say it took them two years to reach Bethlehem! Rather than wait that long, add the wise men to the scene at any time before the end of Advent. 

When should I set up my Nativity scene? 

The ideal time is near the beginning of the Advent season, which is Dec. 3, 2023. The second-best time is today! If you missed Advent's start, no problem. You can follow the timing for each Nativity figure or set it all up at once. Buy a crafted set or try your hand at a Nativity scene DYI. 

Some people pack away their Nativity set with Christmas decorations. You'll notice that Nativity sets remain up in churches longer than that. They'll come down on Jan. 5, the Twelfth Night, or the Eve of the Epiphany. 

So many Catholic families revere the Nativity scene this time of year. It's a beautiful reminder of Christ's humble birth! Rife with symbolism, it's also a simple representation of the Christmas miracle.  

This year, think prayerfully about the process of setting up your Nativity. It contains centuries of wisdom and hope! 

Frequently asked questions 

What does the nativity scene represent? 

A Nativity is the most identifiable icon of Christmastime. Nativity comes from the Latin nativus, meaning "arisen by birth." In this way, the Nativity represents a rebirth of our faith during this holy season. 

They also remind us of how the Kingdom of God works. They bring together the majesty of heaven in meager conditions on earth. A king, born of common people, into a humble setting, looked upon by the very people He would serve in his lifetime. 

Is a nativity scene a graven image? 

A Nativity is not a graven image according to the Bible. If you thought of the Second Commandment as you read this post, you likely weren't alone. It's explicit: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image." True, Baby Jesus is an image manufactured to represent the Son of God. 

But idolatry is the key here. Although Christians display the Nativity and reflect on it, they do not worship it. That keeps any part of it from becoming a sin on its own. 

What is a live Nativity scene? 

A live Nativity scene is what it sounds like - a living representation of Christ's birth. It can include life-sized figures or actors in period dress. Even the animals included are real things!  

A Nativity scene set outdoors at a church is often accompanied by music, lighting, and narration. This gives observers a true-life feel for what that day looked like.