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The Nativity

The traditional nativity scene is something that we have associated with Christmas for the past 2000 years, since the birth of Jesus Christ. At some point in their childhood, many children will have performed in a nativity play at school, in front of proud parents and other family members.

For others, the nativity means setting up small figurines at home as part of their Christmas decorations or gazing in wonder at the amazing life-size tableaus erected outside many churches throughout the festive period.

The Nativity


First nativity

The history of the nativity at Christmas is a fascinating one, with the first tableau said to have been created by St Francis of Assisi in 1223. Traditionally, the scene consists of Mary and Joseph in the stable, with baby Jesus lying in a manger, surrounded by an assortment of farm animals and the Three Wise Men bringing gifts.

An account of the first nativity appears in the historical book, The Life of St Francis of Assisi, written by a Franciscan monk, St Bonaventure, who was born in 1221, five years before Francis’s death. The book suggests that St Francis asked Pope Honorius III for his help to set up a nativity scene.

It was his plan to recreate the scene in the stable by setting up a manger filled with hay, with two live animals (an ass and an ox) looking on. The scene was created in the Italian village of Grecio in a cave. St Francis then invited the local villagers to come to the nativity scene, while he preached about Jesus's birth.

St Francis was reportedly overcome with emotion as be began speaking of Jesus's birth and had to call him “the babe of Bethlehem”, as every time he tried to say "Jesus", he began breaking down. He had borrowed a villager's baby to take part in the scene and after preaching, he lifted what St Bonaventure described as a "most beautiful baby" from the manger.

It was also claimed that the hay used in the manger by St Francis (the patron saint of animals) acquired miraculous healing properties and cured the local cattle of diseases and pestilence afterwards.


European celebrations

After the first nativity scene in the 13th century, the idea took off and by the 15th century, nativity scenes were set up throughout Europe to celebrate Christmas. Historians are unsure whether people actually portrayed Joseph and Mary in the early years, or whether the scene was simply set up in a stable, with the manger and animals, for preaching.

Many graphic illustrations of the nativity were also created. In particular, it was depicted on churches' stained-glass windows and in sculptures, paintings and carvings on church doors. As many people at this time were illiterate, the story was told in pictures, so that everyone could understand and celebrate Jesus's birth.

These illustrations in churches were like the popular "books" of their era, with the power to bring to life the amazing story of the birth of Jesus Christ, even to people who couldn't read or write.

Of course, local tradition gave the nativity scene regional flavours, such as the cribs in southern Germany being hand-carved out of wood, or the figurines in the south of France being fashioned from painted terracotta.


Live actors

Later scenes depicting the nativity incorporated live actors, and as well as playing Joseph and Mary, they also brought the Three Kings who had brought gifts for baby Jesus, shepherds and often other characters.

Sometimes, village and school nativities find roles for everyone, so that the entire village or class can feel a part of the Christmas celebration.

In the Bible, in the New Testament’s four gospels, Luke and Matthew describe Jesus’s birth. Luke mentions the shepherds and Matthew writes about the wise men. In modern school nativities, some "artistic interpretation" is permitted, so that all the children can play a part, whether it's "shepherd number four" or even a farmyard animal.

The beauty of the nativity today is that it has the power to bring everyone together to celebrate one of the most important events on the Christian calendar, in a way that everyone can understand.

If you care for animals, take a look at Coruba's range of horse, stable and animal matting that will surely keep them warm, safe and comfortable. Save on bedding costs and help improve the comfort of your horse or other farmyard animals this winter with our high-quality products.

The Coruba team would like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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