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Unveiling the Mysteries Behind Nativity Scenes

Have you ever wondered why a nativity scene is often referred to as a creche? In this article, we will explore the origins of this term and shed light on the significance of nativity scenes...

Have you ever wondered why a nativity scene is often referred to as a creche? In this article, we will explore the origins of this term and shed light on the significance of nativity scenes in Christian culture. Join us as we unravel the mysteries behind these beloved Christmas displays.

The Journey of the Word 'Creche'

The term "creche" has its roots in the French language, specifically in the word "crèche," which can translate to "day-care facility" or "crib." However, it has evolved to represent a three-dimensional depiction of the birth of Jesus, commonly known as the nativity scene. While the exact origin of the word is debatable, it is believed to have originated from the French word "crèche" in the late 1700s or even earlier in Old French as "cresche." Other sources suggest its connection to the Old High German "kripja" or Old English "cribb." Nowadays, the accent mark is often dropped from the word when used by most people.

question mark on block with lights signifying questioning the church Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/ChristianChan

The Interchangeable Use of 'Creche' and 'Nativity'

While Christians often use the terms "creche" and "nativity" interchangeably, it is important to note that neither of these words appear in the Bible. According to scripture, the term used to describe the manger bed at Jesus' birth is "manger." Over time, however, "creche" has come to encompass the entire nativity setting. On the other hand, "nativity" is derived from the Latin word "nativus," meaning "arisen by birth."

Exploring the Biblical Accounts

Although "creche" does not have a direct biblical reference, the birth of Jesus is described in the New Testament. The accounts of Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 2:1-7 provide insights into the circumstances surrounding His birth. Luke's account specifically mentions that Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and placed him in a manger since there was no room for them in the inn. The shepherds were informed that they would find the Messiah "lying in a manger," and indeed, they discovered Him there.

Christmas nativity manger scene figurines Photo Credit: Unsplash/Alasdair Elmes

The Origins of Nativity Scenes

The first recorded nativity scene is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 AD. Seeking to help children understand the true meaning of Christmas, he staged a manger scene in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio, complete with real people and animals. This tradition soon spread throughout Christendom, with Catholic and Protestant churches creating their own versions. Today, some of the most well-known nativity scenes can be found at the White House, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Vatican.

Nativity Scenes in Modern Times

In our modern world, nativity scenes have taken on different forms and sizes. Some have even broken Guinness World Records. For example, the largest living nativity scene, with 2,101 participants, was created in the Philippines in 2019. Sergio Rodriguez Villarreal holds the record for creating the largest nativity scene figures in Mexico in 1999. Closer to home, Pines Christian Church of Mt. Gilead, Ohio, gathered 2,300 unique nativity sets in 2015, surpassing a previous record set in Florida.

Wisemen figurines in Christmas nativity or creche scene Photo Credit: ©SparrowStock

Nativity Sets in Christian Homes

Nativity displays are not limited to churches and public places; they have also found their place in Christian homes. Early nativity sets were made of terracotta and displayed year-round in Italian churches. Wealthy citizens would purchase smaller sets for their homes. Craftsmen initially used wood, wax, and terracotta to create the figures, adorning them with beautiful clothes. As nativity sets spread to different Christian countries, they incorporated unique styles and traditions. For example, in Germany, all the figures were displayed before Christmas, but baby Jesus was only added after Christmas Eve.

Modern nativity sets are made from various materials such as ceramic, porcelain, resin, china, and different woods. Olive wood nativity sets are popular in Israel. The Fontanini company, established in 1908 by Italian artisan Emmanuele Fontanini, produces elaborate hand-painted sets that are cherished by collectors.

The Significance of Nativity Scenes for Christians

While some critics argue that nativity scenes trivialize the birth of Jesus or lead to idolatry, most Christians see them as a way to commemorate and celebrate His coming. Pastor Alistair Begg, for instance, believes that in a secular society, nativity scenes serve as a valuable connection to the historical account of Jesus' birth. These displays provide an opportunity for engagement and conversation, reminding us of the miracle that occurred on that holy night.

Unveiling the Inaccuracies

When comparing nativity scenes to biblical narratives, discrepancies can be found. Basic nativity sets typically include a stable, Mary, Joseph, a manger, and baby Jesus. Additional figures such as shepherds, angels, and various animals are often included. However, some of these elements do not align with the biblical accounts. For example, the Bible states that there was no room in the inn for Joseph and Mary, indicating that Jesus was likely born in the lower level of a home where animals were kept. Angels, although not mentioned at the site, are often added for their symbolic representation. Additionally, cows, donkeys, and camels are frequently included in nativity scenes, although they are not mentioned in the scriptures. The Magi, commonly known as the three wise men, are another addition to nativity scenes. However, the Bible does not specify the exact number of wise men or their names.

Embracing the Wonder and Meaning

Despite these variations and inaccuracies, nativity scenes continue to inspire wonder and reflection. They serve as a reminder of the miracle of Jesus' birth and the significance of His coming. As we observe these displays, let us cherish the opportunity to meditate on the profound love of God, who sent His Son to dwell among us. Let our hearts echo the words of the angels: "Glory to God in the highest heaven!" May we find joy and inspiration in the beauty of nativity scenes and use them as a catalyst for meaningful conversations about the true meaning of Christmas.

Father God, renew our wonder of the miracle of Your Son's birth. May we say with the angels, "Glory to God in the highest heaven," as we meditate on the miracle of His coming. Amen. Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/kevron2001

Dawn Wilson, an experienced revival ministry and missions servant, resides in Southern California with her husband. She is involved in various departments at Revive Our Hearts and is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today. Dawn also publishes Upgrade with Dawn and writes for Crosswalk.com.

This article is part of our larger Christmas and Advent resource library, centered around the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles deepen your understanding of the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates, encouraging you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through His Son, Jesus Christ!