One of my favorite parts of the holiday season is driving through my town and seeing all the decorations: rows of houses twinkling with lights, storefronts frosted with glittery snow and light-posts wrapped in festive garland. But best of all, I love the beautiful Nativity scenes displayed in churches and homes. I’ve seen such an amazing variety of styles, from life-size to miniature, static scenes with beautifully handcrafted figurines to “living” scenes with real people and animals, indoor Nativity collections for the home and outdoor displays for all to enjoy. In the spirit of the season, I thought we might take a “tour” of some of the world’s most famous Nativity displays together.
First Stop: Vatican City
Every year on December 24, one of the most anticipated Nativity scenes is unveiled in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. This annual tradition started surprisingly recently, with the life-size Nativity inaugurated by Pope John Paul II in 1982. Since then, the Vatican has featured a variety of Nativity scenes offered by different regions of Italy throughout the years.
In 2006, the town of Tesero donated seventeen new figures to the Nativity, crafted in spruce by the town’s sculptors and wood sawyers. The next year, the Vatican Nativity scene placed the Holy Family in their home in Nazareth, rather than a manger in Bethlehem. Inspired by verses in St. Matthew’s Gospel, the scene featured three rooms, including Joseph’s carpentry workshop and an inn. The scene returned to a traditional Bethlehem setting in 2008, with the addition of a fountain and hearth representing regeneration and light.
In 2012, the Vatican Nativity came from the region of Basilicata and featured one hundred terra cotta figurines crafted by renowned artist Francesco Artese. Due to austerity measures, this display was relatively modest, featuring smaller than usual figures in a miniature village. Last year’s Nativity scene was created by artist Antonio Cantone of Naples, an area that is world-famous for its Nativity scenes. This year’s scene will be revealed as usual on Christmas Eve.
A Quick Stop in the United Kingdom
On December 18, 2013, students at Archbishop Temple School in Preston, Lancashire gathered with staff and a few extra recruits to set a new world record for most living figurines in a Nativity play. The scene featured 898 students, staff, friends and a two-month-old baby playing the characters of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, angels, wise men, shepherds, sheep cows, and innkeepers. The idea came from a Year-11 student named Daisy Watson, who suggested it as a way of celebrating the school’s 50th anniversary. Well done, Miss Watson!
Next Stop: Santa Maria da Feira, Portugal
Speaking of world records, last year Santa Maria da Feira hosted the world’s largest moving Nativity scene. Awarded the Guinness World Record for most mechanical figures in a Nativity scene (162, though the entire display included many more moving figures that were not directly related to the Nativity), this sprawling village display is the annual project of artist Manuel Jacinto. The scene is an incredible 2,000 square meters in size – to us Americans, that’s close to half an acre, or 22,000 square feet – and features both traditional religious elements as well as secular items, like figurines of local celebrities and politicians. It is equipped with motion sensors that bring the total of 7,000 figurines to life, and 3,000 LED lights. Jacinto and a generous community of skilled volunteers dedicate many hours to building the display. The entire process takes months of preparation and as such, is a labor of love for the community that must be quite a sight! It’s offered free to the public each year from November through March.
Across the Atlantic: Winnipeg, Canada
Gateway Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba is home to a wonderfully unique Nativity tradition called “Bethlehem LIVE!” It’s an interactive village and live performance that sounds like a really fun and engaging way to experience the Nativity story. Visitors enter a “Time Tunnel” and travel back in time 2,000 years, where they meet a shepherd who will guide them through the ancient town of Bethlehem. Complete with lowing cattle and sheep, a market with fruit and breads, a tax collector and Herod’s palace, visitors eventually follow the sound of angels singing to the manger where Mary and Joseph are resting with the baby Jesus. Gateway Church offers this inspiring experience every year at no cost. This year’s performances take place December 11-14, so if you’re in the area, I would definitely recommend checking it out!
Back Home in America: New York City
The annual Nativity scene at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of the most famous in America. The time-honored installation features a 20-foot Christmas tree adorned by an elaborate 18th century Neapolitan Nativity scene. Complete with an array of miniature lifelike figures and angels in silk robes hovering overhead, this cherished Nativity scene was first presented in 1957 by the late Loretta Hines Howard. Mrs. Howard had been an avid collector of Neapolitan crèche figures since 1925, and she had the unique idea to combine a traditional Roman Catholic Nativity scene with an ornately decorated Christmas tree. It has been a beloved tradition at the Met ever since.
The Nativity scene is a detailed display featuring Roman ruins and village houses, populated by vivid, lifelike figures of townspeople, shepherds, animals, the wise men, and of course, the Holy Family and the Magi’s procession. The towering spruce tree is lavished with glowing candlelight and some 50 elegantly suspended angels and cherubs. Since Mrs. Howard’s death in 1982, her daughter Linn Howard has continued to be an integral part of the annual installation. Her own daughter, artist Andrea Selby Rossi, also helps. There are lighting ceremonies with recorded music, and though I’ve never had the privilege of seeing it myself, it’s definitely on my list of must-see places to visit!
That concludes our tour, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for joining me. I’d love to hear about your favorite Nativity displays, especially if I’ve missed one. Tell me about it in comments. If you have a Nativity set at home, I’d love to see pictures – you can post them on our Facebook page. Or, if you’re a collector like me, come visit our site to find exquisite and original Nativity sets and Nativity figurines to add to your collection.
Famous Nativity Displays Around the World by Ann Kelley