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:
This 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:
“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. Continue reading “Music of the Nativity”
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.
“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”