When Christmastime rolls around in the United States, a favorite activity everywhere is to walk or drive around the neighborhood and admire the seasonal decorations that people have put up around their homes and workplaces. These may include lifesize (or near-lifesize) outdoor Nativity sets, which may be endearingly simple or they may be beautifully complex—but almost invariably draw the most attention.
If you’re lucky enough to live near a major city, chances are you may be able to view some truly extravagant Nativity scenes that are works of art in themselves (and for that reason they may not necessarily be located outdoors). For example, New York City’s Radio City Music Hall and the Rockettes have made a tradition of presenting a “Living Nativity” performance as part of their annual Christmas Spectacular:
And there’s your answer. Can you think of any bigger day to celebrate in all the year than Christmas? For some people, celebrating Christmas is the perfect way to round out the year, and they go all in on decorations like these. And who can blame them? They’re eye-catching and lots of fun!
Does the sight of a lighted lighted candy cane on a snow-covered lawn immediately fill you with happiness and nostalgia? It should come as no surprise that for most people, it does. But why is that?
Christmastime brings much joy to all kinds of people for all kinds of different reasons. For the religious, there’s the birth of Jesus to be celebrated. For the secular-minded, age-old cultural traditions from all over Europe are revived and re-enacted. Kids love Christmas, of course, because Santa comes to make their material wishes come true. Best of all, for everybody, the Christmas season initiates one long feast for the senses. Consider:
The Sights of Christmas: Though it’s close to the darkest time of the year, everywhere you look you see the exteriors of homes that are decorated to the hilt and brightly lit. Inside, poinsettias in flower pots grace tabletops, every corner is festooned with decorations, and miniature Nativity scenes remind everyone what Christmas is originally all about.
The Smells of Christmas: Certain pleasant aromas have the power to evoke lovely holiday memories. Who has not experienced a moment of euphoria when catching the piney scent of a natural Christmas tree in the living room or, in the kitchen, the smell of cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom.
The Tastes of Christmas: So much about this holiday involves flavor. What goes best with ginger bread—mulled wine or hot chocolate? From sugar cookies to eggnog, there are so many gustatory delights to choose from!
The Sounds of Christmas: Sleigh bells loudly ringing, a department store Santa’s “Ho-ho-ho,” and holiday songs, new and old, secular and religious, fill the air. If those don’t put you in a joyous mood, nothing will.
The Feel of Christmas: How does a person “touch” Christmas? The funny thing is, most of the time it is Christmas that touches us in some way, and it is often a study in contrasts. Imagine the feel of cold winter air and snowflakes on your face—and then, a few minutes later, you are snuggling in front of a fire in a fireplace.
’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
Without a doubt the most popular Christian holiday in the west is Christmas; and this poem by Clement C. Moore, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” is surely one of the most recognizable and beloved. The description of Santa Claus flying through the air on a sleigh drawn by eight reindeer is both fantastic and unforgettable.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave a luster of midday to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
The long, dark, cold nights of December are immeasurably warmed and brightened by the Christmas decorations that mark the holiday season: colored lights, tree ornaments, elaborate wreaths—and not least of all, the indoor and outdoor Nativity scenes that homeowners, churches, and municipalities display to remind us of the meaning of that season. But what inspired this tradition?
On a recent trip to Italy I wanted, of course, to immerse myself in the natural, cultural, artistic, and day-to-day charms of that country, especially in the vicinity of Florence. But I also made a particular point of seeking out the origins of the Nativity Scene tradition within the unrivaled collections of art found throughout that country.