The first live reproduction of the outdoor Christmas nativity was made by St. Francis of Assisi for the event he staged in Greccio, Italy, in 1223. It was a way of communicating the true meaning of Christmas. The idea proved so popular that it soon spread throughout the Christian world.

The story of the nativity comes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Luke’s account describes the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, where they must go to be counted in the census ordered by Caesar Augustus. Unable to find any room at the inn, they take refuge in a stable used to shelter animals. Here Jesus is born and laid in a manger filled with hay. In the hills overlooking Bethlehem an angel tells the shepherds of Jesus' birth. Matthew’s account tells of a brilliant star that appears marking the birthplace of Jesus and of the three kings that follow its light to find the Christ child.

The traditional grouping of wise men and farm folk is symbolic of the universal nature of Christianity and emphasises God’s desire to embrace all people. The shepherds carry the richness of the Earth's harvest, and the first to arrive carries a dove, the symbol of peace. The angel, in bringing the message of the birth to the shepherds, is symbolic of the way God reaches out to all mankind with a message of peace. The wise men are traditionally kings with gifts of riches who symbolise how wealth and wisdom come to kneel before a greater King. Baby Jesus in a humble crib is at the very centre, as He is at the centre of life today.

Since the time of St Francis, the practice has spread around the world in pageants, church reproductions, neighbourhood rituals, professionally staged plays where huge casts including live animals are utilised, and of course the school plays where sometimes the imaginative interpretation of the script provides highly original versions of the events.

Acknowledgements
Photo by F Wilkinson

Reviewed
14 October 2019

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