Treasured as a Christian symbol in homes the world over, the Nativity scene (when written with a capital N, it denotes the birth of Jesus) is often among the most cherished pieces in a family's Christmas collection, especially if it has been passed down through the generations. The scene can be rustic and small or elegantly crafted with dozens of pieces. Some include visiting wise men (or kings), shepherds, sheep and barn animals, but the only requirement in the Nativity scene, manger scene, creche, Presepio, Krippe or Nacimiento are the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Sue Ann Flittner, owner of the Tannenbaum Holiday Shop, describes Nativity scenes' popularity and highlights some of her large collection.
"I decorate for (some of my clients) and one older woman keeps her Creche up all year long. I think it helps you feel closer to God. As you walk past it during the day, it makes you think of what's really important in life, the Christ child and God being present in your life," says Flittner.
Flittner's store features self-contained Nativities, where a frame and three figures suggest a stable and the Holy family; there is a manger scene on a hanging glass ornament and another one on a cross; Flittner also sells traditional German revolving-Nativity pyramids and, one of her favorites, Burk'Art's handmade white clay figures.
"Burk'Art is a very mom-and pop-operation," says Flittner. "It's all made in the USA, one piece at a time. It's a very distinguished look, totally different from anybody else's. They use a cinnamon stick to make the design for the ewe's and Suffolk sheep's coats, a fruit strainer to imprint Baby Jesus' swaddling clothes, vintage beads for the wise men robes" and so on, using collected treasures from years of travels, collections and antiques.
Many traditions call for all of the creche pieces to be set up at the beginning of Advent, except the baby who is put in the manger on Christmas Eve. In this spirit, some people enjoy using Nativity Advent boxes. Families put a small toy behind each numbered day's door (or puzzle pieces, notes of Christmas memories, candies, gas cards and/or movie tickets for teens, etc.) to be opened each day of Advent.
According to the "Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations," "St. Francis of Assisi generally receives the credit for popularizing the Nativity scene as we know it. It is said that at Christmas time in 1224 he recreated the manger scene using real people and animals in a cave near the Italian village of Greccio" and held mass for the assembled worshipers. Such re-enactments gained popularity across Italy and France, the text continues, and "gave rise to another custom: recreating the birth scene with figurines. By the 16th century many churches throughout Italy and Germany presented a Nativity scene of this type at Christmas time. Some French churches adopted the custom as well.
"In the 17th century," the book continues, "families began to create their own Nativity scenes. These became more elaborate with time ... (reaching) spectacular heights in 18th-century Naples, Italy," where families competed with each other to produce the most elegant and elaborate crib scenes. The book goes on to describe the spread and enjoyment of Nativity scenes throughout Europe, Latin America, South America, Mexico and the United States.
To this day, one of the most elaborate Nativity sets on the market is the Italian-made Fontanini collection. Well suited for adding new pieces from year to year, particularly as gifts for the collector, Fontanini's distinctive style features rich colors and detailed figures, each of which comes with a history story card. Fontanini's Nativities are a vast assortment of people, animals and accessories, and, says Flittner, they have the benefit of being made of very durable plastic. "That makes it child friendly," she says.
Hestia manufactures another popular set made in the USA. These lovely figures are distinctive for incorporating cloth and as well as for their realistic animals. Flittner also sells figures made in Bethlehem of olive wood.
While some people purchase one set, or pieces to add to one existing set, others just keep collecting. "This makes 123," one customer recently told Flittner. "Some people are really serious collectors and enjoy Nativities," she says.
For more photos, pricing and details about these and other Nativity sets, visit Flittner's website, http://www.tannenbaumholidayshop.com or Google search "shop Nativity scenes" and find links to sets at Amazon, Catholic supply, Fontanini and much more.