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:
In Pittsburg, the Carnegie Museum of Art has gained fame for its vibrant Neapolitan Presepio, which it has displayed every year since 1957. One of the finest examples of its kind, this elaborate Nativity scene represents a centuries-old tradition in Naples and southern Italy. Handmade by artists between 1700 and 1830, the presepio features superbly modeled human, animal, and angelic figures, accessories, and architectural elements.
In Chicago, visitors can experience an authentic German-style Christmas market that includes a realistic outdoor Nativity scene:
And in Salt Lake City, Utah, the holiday lights and illuminated international Nativity scenes on display in Temple Square draw families and visitors from all over the globe.
But what about what lies outside the U.S. border? How is the Nativity depicted elsewhere in the world?
Turns Out, Foreign Nativity Scenes Are Not That Different
Which actually should come as little or no surprise. After all, as we have observed in a previous blog (“Historical Origins of Outdoor Nativity Scenes”), the tradition of re-imagining the birth of Christ at Christmastime was invented by a famous, beloved Italian:
The true origins of what we might recognize as a modern Christmas celebration can be traced back to the year 1223. It was then that St. Francis of Assisi, inspired by a recent trip to the Holy land, staged a celebratory “Nativity Scene” in Greccio, Italy.
Since the concept originated in Italy in the first place, it makes sense that there is a long and varied history in cities and towns throughout the country of creating memorable public Nativity scenes. Here are some examples:
Outdoor Nativity Scenes in Italy
Although Christmas was never celebrated as a “special” joyous occasion until the 13th century (thanks to St. Francis), early Christians certainly recognized this event’s unique importance to their faith. Indeed, an ancient Roman sarcophagus from the 4th century features an ox, an ass, and the infant Jesus in one of the earliest visual depictions of the Nativity:
Notable depictions of this event in the modern era can be found throughout Italy. Let’s start at the place where the crèche tradition began.
As we enter Advent, we follow in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi and travel to the town of Greccio, where the saint stopped in the last years of his life and where he established what has become the most well-known tradition of Christmas: the nativity scene.
The Vatican Nativity, which is located in Saint Peter’s Square, was initiated by Pope John Paul II in 1982. In recent years, a Nativity scene has been donated by various Catholic regions of the world.
Even if you can’t spring for a trip to Italy, you can enjoy a tour of the gorgeous, hand-crafted Nativity scene in Florence’s Holy Spirit Basilica, with a personal commentary from the master artisans who created it.
A nativity scene in Turin Cathedral appears to have adapted to pandemic life, with Joseph, Mary, and the whole crew of shepherds and mages wearing masks while waiting for the arrival of baby Jesus. (The scene’s animals were exempt from having to cover their snouts.)
Strictly speaking, this is not an outdoor Nativity scene, but an elaborate indoor diorama. Every church has one. Due to the periodic risk of flooding in “La Serenissima,” it is not practical to erect outdoor Nativity scenes, lest they float away.
Here a young Sicilian artisan prepares the set for a living Nativity scene in Santa Maria La Stella, Sicily.
Other Nativity Scenes in Europe and Elsewhere
That’s just Italy—and we’ve barely scratched the surface! We could write thousands of more words about the Nativity traditions of cities in other Christian countries, such as Barcelona, Spain…
…or in Germany, where one in two German households sets up a Nativity scene. We could also write about the southern French town of Aubagne, which in 2017 created a massive Christmas crib featuring 3,500 clay figurines, or the Nativity traditions of South America. But what better way to celebrate the Nativity this year than by presenting a Nativity scene in Bethlehem, where the very first actual Nativity took place.
We hope this blog inspires you to get creative this year or next with an outdoor Nativity set for your home. Merry Christmas!