One of the oldest and most treasured Christmas traditions around the world is the displaying of a nativity scene, or crèche. A crèche is a three-dimensional artistic representation of the birth of Jesus, usually with the infant Jesus in a manger, surrounded by figures of Mary, Joseph, shepherds, animals, and the wise men. The crèche was not always comprised of small, motionless figurines. In fact, the original nativity set was live, with people dressed as Mary and Joseph and real animals used in the barn. The first live nativity sets were said to be created by St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century.
This tradition spread from Italy to Germany and eventually throughout all of Europe and beyond. Traditionally the sets were displayed at the front of medieval churches and temples. Eventually, artists began carving these images into wood or making them out of straw, and when the nativity sets moved to other countries, other materials were used such as stone and ivory. Whether called the Italian presipio, the German krippe, the Spanish nacimiento, the English crib, or the Polish szopka, each crèche reflects the artist's culture, time, and a reverence for the Savior Jesus Christ - the Son of God - whose birth we rejoice in this Christmas season and always.