Every Christmas, we unpack our family’s nativity scene. Made of olive wood and purchased from a shop in Bethlehem, it traditionally occupies a prominent place on our fireplace mantle. While some nativity sets are made of wood and others are ceramic, they all celebrate the central reason for this holiday season: the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The word nativity means simply the occasion of birth, and it is most often associated with the birth of Christ.
In 1223, Francis of Assisi arranged a living nativity complete with a manger and live animals. He invited people to watch while he preached a sermon about Christ’s birth. Later, the living scenes were reproduced into crèche sets using household materials to make the figures.
Although the characters in our nativity sets follow tradition, they are not always biblically accurate. The Magi, for example, did not attend Jesus’ birth. They may have visited as much as two years later (Matt. 2:1). And, although it might be entirely plausible that they were nearby, the Bible does not mention donkeys, oxen, or sheep at the birth of our Savior.
What our depictions do get right is that the birth of Christ did not happen in isolation. God’s Son was born to and among ordinary people. French nativity scenes reflect this idea by presenting a wide cast of characters, including common members of ordinary village life: a farmer, a cobbler, a gardener, or a policeman.
The French tradition illustrates an important point, because the biblical account of Christ’s birth involved a great cast of characters. The account tells the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth, Gabriel, the Shepherds, the Magi, Herod, Simeon, and Anna. And the news of Christ’s birth extended far beyond the manger, impacting and changing lives. As the angel declared to the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10).
We return to the nativity, the birth of Jesus, because what God did at that moment changes us still today: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). This was not just an ordinary baby; this was the Son of God become man, as the apostle Paul observes (Phil. 2:8). It was God’s love displayed in a way we could see and touch and comprehend. The birth of Jesus has changed our lives forever.
The nativity is not just a symbol of the Christmas season, it represents God’s plan of salvation. In this seemingly ordinary birth we find hope for the world. As Matthew’s Gospel records, “They shall call His name Immanuel, which translated means, ‘God with us.’” (1:23).