Advent in Nativity Scenes

Rev. Johann G. Roten, SM

Re-creating the scene of Christ's birth is one of the most tender and enduring Christmas traditions. Making representations of the Nativity is a universally popular art form which has flourished in Europe since the sixteenth century. In every language, it is known for its focal point, the crib of the Infant Jesus creche in France, Krippe in Germany, presepio in Italy, Belem in Portugal, presebre in Spain, and nacimiento in Latin America.

[Peruvian Nativity Scene] Cribs have been created in different styles and methods of construction. Besides the exquisite wood carvings of Bavaria and the lavish creations of the Neapolitan Baroque, there are simpler styles descended from ancient crafts and diverse traditions; new styles of folk and primitive art appear. The use of humble materials paper, cork, wood, straw and precious ones silver, coral, pearl indicates that all creation has been touched by God's coming.

Interest in the crib continues on different levels and in different ways. Collectors vie to acquire centuries-old masterpieces from art dealers. Churches and families add to and repair crib sets which have been passed down from generation to generation. Nativity scenes from Africa, Asia, and Latin America take their place alongside those from Europe. Contemporary creations portray Joseph and Mary as a homeless family huddled together on a city grate which provides warmth.

In late summer of 1994, an earnest effort was begun at the Marian Library to collect various cultural expressions of the nativity scene. To date, the collection consists of about 620 nativity sets from many parts of the world: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, India, Africa, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, Haiti, Peru, Chile, and the United States. Noticeably missing to date are a few cultural expressions of the nativity from Eastern Europe, Spain, Portugal, Japan, China, Holland, Belgium.

Nativity Scene]

The goals we set in establishing such a collection are the following. We wish to show Mary in context the context of family, of society, and of the circumstances unique to a culture, and, simultaneously, to foster affection for Mary in this context. Such a collection is a contribution to the study of religion and culture, providing material for analyzing the various expressions and the interaction of religion and culture as depicted in religious festivities, costume, and folklore. We also wish to highlight the popular character of religion, the ways in which it reflects the age-old aspirations and fears of the human soul. A further element or concern is an attempt to rediscover aspects of religious psychology and how culture deals with them.

Scene]The creche collection has developed into an ongoing project which, as a significant source for the study of the Incarnation, also finds affiliation in International Marian Research Institute courses and research.

The nativity sets here presented are but a fraction of the whole collection highlighting some of the many and different features attributed to Christ's coming in this world. They show how the unique event of Christ's birth in Bethlehem enters into and becomes part of the life story of families and peoples.

[Byzantine Nativity Icon] At present, we are planning to expand our project into a noteworthy state-of-the-art collection for The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute. We are searching for the following: old creches (as a means to survey their historical development); nativity scenes crafted by individual artists (when possible, signed by the artist and with some information about the artist); new expressions of the nativity scene; and creches from various countries, especially those not yet represented in the collection.

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