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December 16, 2012

Slate's Explainer: Why people put up nativity scenes

(Continued)

Within a couple centuries of Francis' inaugural display, nativity scenes had spread throughout Europe. It's unclear from Bonaventure's account whether Francis used people or figures to stand in for Jesus, Mary and Joseph, or if the spectators just used their imagination, but later nativity scenes included both tableaux vivants and dioramas, and the cast of characters gradually expanded to include not only the happy couple and the infant, but sometimes entire villages. The familiar cast of characters we see today — the three wise men and the shepherds — aren't biblically accurate. Of the four gospels in the New Testament, only Matthew and Luke describe Jesus' birth, the former focusing on the story of the wise men's trek to see the infant king, the latter recounting the shepherds' visit to the manger where Jesus was born. Nowhere in the Bible do the shepherds and wise men appear together, and nowhere in the Bible are donkeys, oxen, cattle or other domesticated animals mentioned in conjunction with Jesus' birth. But early nativity scenes took their cues more from religious art than from scripture.

After the reformation, creches became more associated with southern Europe (where Catholicism was still prevalent), while Christmas trees were the northern European decoration of choice (since Protestantism — and evergreens — thrived there). As nativity scenes spread, different regions began to take on different artistic features and characters. For example, the "santon" figurines manufactured in Provence in France are made of terra cotta and include a wide range of villagers. In the Catalonia region of Spain, a figure known as the "caganer" — a young boy in the act of defecating — shows up in most nativity scenes. In 20th- and 21st-century America, nativity figurines became associated with kitsch rather than piety, with nonreligious figures like snowmen and rubber ducks sometimes occupying the main roles.

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