Under a Conservative SCOTUS, Does the Plastic Christmas Reindeer Rule Still Matter?

Christmas reindeer

Some years ago we explored the sticky question of a municipal, state, or federal entity celebrating the Christmas holiday with the public display of an overtly denominational religious symbol, such as a manger scene. The consensus at the time (in 2011) was that the best recourse is to abide by the Plastic Reindeer Rule. This decision by the Supreme court in 1984 refers to a Pawtucket, Rhode Island, case (Lynch v. Donnelly) wherein the court ruled that the city did not violate the separation of church and state principle when it included a Nativity scene among a number of other seasonal and mostly secular holiday decorations (e.g., life-size Christmas reindeer, giant candy canes, a wishing well, a Jewish menorah, etc.) displayed in a public park.

No doubt this Solomonic decision by the Supreme Court left both religious and non-religious advocates equally unhappy. Yet that is the essential wisdom of Solomonic judgments: Everybody wins if nobody wins!

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Shopping for an Outdoor Nativity Set?

Outdoor Nativity set

There Are So Many Decorating Options!

For those who celebrate Christmas, decorating for the holiday is an exciting, meaningful activity. Whether the celebration is secular or sacred, adorning the home, church, or business for the season brings people together in joyful, creative ways. One popular activity is shopping for giant outdoor nativity sets, which illustrate the beautiful “reason for the season.”

The outdoor nativity scene is a cherished Christmas tradition. Inspired by a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, St. Francis of Assisi was the very first to enact the original Nativity, with a live recreation of the birth of Christ for the people of Greccio, Italy, in 1223. Since then, living Nativity scenes continue to be presented by churches and religious organizations worldwide. Actors pose as the Holy Family, Shepherds, and Magi. Some scenes even include a variety of animals that, according to the New Testament, attended Jesus’ birth.

Yet, putting together a live performance isn’t something many are willing to tackle. For that reason, many celebrants who want to share Christmas with neighbors and passers-by prefer to put up life-sized outdoor nativity sets for all to see. And happily, there isn’t one “right” set from which to choose; you have many options!

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In a Humble Cave—a Life-size Nativity Set

Magi sculptures on Nativity façade of Sagrada Familia

As the Christmas season rolls around each December, re-creations of the first Nativity begin to appear. The smaller celebratory displays—also called manger scenes or crèches—might be placed on mantles or beneath Christmas trees.

Homemade indoor crèche
Small homemade Nativity crèche for indoor display

The larger ones are best set up outdoors for all to enjoy. These displays range in size and complexity from simple, smaller models to elaborate, life-size Nativity sets.

Nativity Façade of Sagrada Familia Basilica
Nativity Façade of Sagrada Familia

For pure gigantic, larger-than-life-size spectacle, however, it’s hard to beat Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, the masterpiece of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. One entire towering section of the basilica, aptly named the “Nativity Façade,” fairly overflows with images of organic life of all types. It also features scenes from the life of Jesus. In one part are statues of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and angels; on one side of them is a sculptural group representing the adoration of the shepherds and, on the other, the three wise men (detail featured at the beginning of this article).

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Think About Your Nativity Sets Well Ahead of Christmas

Whether you need a high-end, beautiful nativity set for the Christmas season for your church, shopping center, museum, or another public facing area, it’s better to think ahead! Scrambling for a major purchase such as an excellent quality, crafted life-size nativity set at the last second is bound to get you into trouble when you’re making a thousand other preparations for the holiday season at the same time. Planning well ahead and ensuring you have a high-quality outdoor nativity scene prepared while everyone else is waiting to order certainly has its benefits. Here are three reasons you should consider purchasing your life-size nativity sets well ahead of time this year.

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Outdoor Nativity Sets Around the World

Wooden Nativity set in front of home

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:

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Music of the Nativity

Medieval sheet music

Holy family Nativity setThis year, as you put the finishing touches on your home’s outdoor Nativity set display, take a mental survey: name five of your favorite Christmas songs. Chances are, the short list would include at least a few of these seasonal favorites:

  • “Jingle Bells”
  • “White Christmas”
  • “Winter Wonderland”
  • “The Christmas Song”
  • “Baby It’s Cold Outside”
  • “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”
  • “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”
  • “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”

John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” (1971) might also make the list, vying with Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” (1979). On that list there might even be The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” which in various polls has been cited as the favorite Christmas song of all time in the U.K. and Ireland!

The funny thing is this—none of these aforementioned songs has much to do with Christmas per se. Yes, these non-liturgical songs may mention Santa Claus, winter weather, romance, and longing for one’s family during the holiday season, and they may all be enjoyable and appropriate for the season; but they barely allude, if at all, to the core narrative underlying all Christmas celebrations, namely, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. In other words, the first Nativity.
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Art of the Nativity

Duomo of Florence Italy at night

Guest Blog by Frank Weaver

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.

The Nativity in Florence and Milan

I did not have to search hard.

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Historical Origins of Outdoor Nativity Scenes

Outdoor Nativity scene


“All cultures…have grown out of myths. They are founded on myths. What these myths have given has been inspiration for aspiration.”
— Joseph Campbell, Mythology and the Individual (1997)

From church iconography to Easter baskets, from Yule logs to small indoor crèches and huge outdoor Nativity sets, the backstories behind the outward manifestations of Christian belief, in all their rich variety, remain a source of endless historical interest, and not a little speculation. Continue reading “Historical Origins of Outdoor Nativity Scenes”