Nativity plays are among the many popular traditions associated with Christmas. For example, in Britain, it is traditional for primary school children to put on a Christmas play at Christmas.
What is a nativity scene?
The word ‘nativity’ is derived from the Latin word ‘natal’ which means birth.
In essence, a Nativity is one that recreates the scene of the birth of Jesus Christ in the stable. Its actors narrate and represent the details associated with the birth of Jesus, such as the visit of the shepherds and the Magi. Children play the main roles of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men.
Saint Francis of Assisi and the first manger
Saint Francis of Assisi is widely credited with creating the first Nativity play in Italy around 1223. What prompted Saint Francis to think about the idea of bringing the entire nativity scene to life was a harsh reality. Widespread illiteracy prevented people from reading the Bible for themselves. So even though they were ‘Christians’, they themselves couldn’t read the Christmas story in the Bible. Another obstacle was the fact that Latin was the predominant language used for worship services in churches in those days. A language they did not understand.
It was to address this gap that San Francisco came up with a novel and hitherto neglected idea. It was not enough to tell the story of the first Christmas to people. I wanted to show you what the actual night of Jesus’ birth must have been like. To this end, he installed a nativity scene, complete with live animals, a manger, and some hay. He looked at local villagers to act out the key roles of Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. Needless to add, the world’s first Nativity play was a resounding success.
In the early days, it was common to use real animals, including an ox and a donkey and other farm animals (except pigs) in Nativity plays. These days it is more common for children to put on animal costumes or have animal accessories.
Nativity scenes and Bethlehem
Little by little, as the popularity of nativity works grew outside of Italy as well, cribs appeared on the scene. The mangers were just another representation of the nativity scene, with paper cutouts or wooden figures of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men and the farm animals.
In many European countries such as Italy and Malta, the nativity scene constitutes the central axis of all Christmas decorations. Cribs date back a long time to the city of Naples in Italy. Here, nativity scenes have been used to decorate homes and churches since the 1020s, long before nativity games appeared on the scene.
The largest manger in the world
Naples, in Italy, is also home to the largest nativity scene in the world. It is housed in the ‘Museo Nazionale di S. Martino’ and has about 162 people, 80 animals, angels and around 450 other smaller objects.
Malta and Christmas cribs
Nativity scenes are inherent to Christmas celebrations in Malta. Although initially imported from Italy, the first true Maltese nativity scene is believed to have been made in Malta sometime in 1617. It was prominently displayed in the Church of the Dominican Friars in Rabat. One of the oldest preserved nativity scenes in Malta is the one that can be seen in the Monastery of Saint Peter in Mdina and dates from 1670. It is highly appreciated and is cared for by the Benedictine Nuns who reside in that monastery.