Nativity scenes: More than meets the eye
Nativity scenes are a common sight at Christmastime but what could seem like a simple decoration actually has a lot of spiritual lessons if you look hard enough. St. Francis of Assisi created the first crèche in 1223, in an attempt to bring the focus of Christmas back to the birth of Christ and away from material, gift-giving customs.
United Methodist Jeanne Honeycutt has spent time researching the meaning behind variations in crèche displays. She and volunteers from First United Methodist Church in Tullahoma, Tenn. maintain a permanent Nativity museum at their church, which showcases more than 400 crèches. Honeycutt shared her research with us and explained the symbols listed below.
The halo, or nimbus, has been used for centuries to denote deity. When appearing in Christian art, a halo symbolizes the light of God and a soul infused with God’s spirit. The halo also signifies God’s “glory,” from the Greek word doxa, meaning the shining brilliance of God.
Jesus’ outstretched arms
The Christ Child’s outstretched arms reflect the invitation to salvation through him.
Most scholars believe that the stable referred to in the Gospels was most likely a cave built into the rocks behind, or adjacent to, the inn, which illustrates the divine truth that the Son of God came down to the very heart of the earth to dwell among humanity. Later, the cave would be revered as Christ’s burial place, from which he would be resurrected.
Swaddling clothes, as described in the New Testament, foretell Jesus’ burial shroud.
The Virgin Mary’s gown
The Virgin Mary often wears a gown of red, signifying lifeblood. Her mantle of blue represents the sky and heaven, conveying that she is the link between the human and the divine.
Hands over heart
At times, Mary is seen with hands clutched over her heart, alluding to St. Luke’s account: “But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
(Luke 2: 19)
The shepherds represent the common man. They also reference David, the shepherd who became king, and indicate Christ's ancestral lineage.
The Good Shepherd
Throughout the Old Testament, God is often referred to as a shepherd: “He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart.”
(Isaiah 40: 11)
The three wise men, or Magi, are often depicted as being three different ages — one young, one middle-aged, and one elderly — relating to the three stages of life.
Gifts of the Magi
The gifts the Magi bring to Christ also take on significance. Gold indicates Christ’s kingship, incense symbolizes his divinity and myrrh foreshadows his death.
Nationalities of the Magi
The Magi are often portrayed as coming from three geographical and cultural areas — Asia, Africa and Europe — referring to the three known continents at the time.
The Magi’s animals
The animals that carry the Magi to Bethlehem vary as well. You may see them riding a horse from Europe, a camel from Asia and an elephant from Africa.
The stable animals
The ox and ass illustrate that Christ is the king of all creation, both human and animal. The ox is believed to represent patience while the ass connotes humility.
The animals watch over Christ
The animals are often seen hovering over the Christ Child, as though to warm him with their breath.
Having accompanied the shepherds, lambs are almost always present. The lamb symbolizes purity and points toward Jesus’ sacrificial death upon the cross.
The rooster is sometimes included as a symbol of vigilance, and foreshadows the cock crowing three times on the night of Jesus’ betrayal.
The dog is believed to embody faithfulness and loyalty.
The presence of Roman or Greek columns, often as ruins, depicts Christianity’s triumph over the pagan world. Also illustrating Jesus’ birth into both a Jewish and Hellenistic world, they reiterate the message that Christ came for all races and all cultures.
The presence of a well signifies the purity of Jesus and references the waters of baptism.
Romans acknowledged the palm branch as a symbol of victory. In a nativity, palms represent the branches waved on Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and fore tells his triumph over the grave.
The inclusion of contemporary figures in native clothing helps Christians of different cultures to relate personally to the events of the Holy Night.
Farmers, bakers and candlestick makers
At times, figures representing common occupations are added to emphasize that Christ came for people from all walks of life.
Families with children can read the Christmas story as they set up the manger scene, adding each character one-by-one and taking time to reflect on each figure and the role it plays in the Nativity.
Some people wait a week to add the Wise Men to their display to mark the time it would have taken for the Magi to travel to visit the Baby Jesus. Most churches celebrate the arrival of the Magi on Epiphany (January 6), the day immediately following the twelve days of Christmas.
Churches usually leave Nativity scenes on display until the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated a couple of weeks after Christmas.
We hope this information will make your Christmas more memorable, and you will share this story with others so they too can learn faith lessons from the figures in the crèche.
*Lilla Marigza is a producer with UMC.org. The research for this article was done by Jeanne Honeycutt. All Nativities pictured are part of the Nativity Museum at First United Methodist Church, Tullahoma, Tenn. Photography by Lilla Marigza and Kathryn Price. This feature was first published on December 4, 2014.
News media contact: Lilla Marigza, 615-742-5131.
- “The Christmas Creche, Treasure of Faith, Art and Theatre,” Matthew Powell, O.P. (Daughters of St. Paul, 1997)
- “How to Read Bible Stories and Myths in Art,” Patrick De Rynck (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2009)
- “Krippen, Nativity Scenes, Creches,” Nina Gockerell ( Taschen, 1999 )