Although the holiday season often conjures up visions of decorated trees, large gift boxes or flying reindeer, there’s one iconic Christmas image that stands above them all — the scene of Jesus’ birth. 

For centuries, Christians have prepared for the coming of the Lord by re-creating the familiar manger setting in which Mary and Joseph welcomed Jesus into the world. Ranging from the simple to the elaborate, the traditional to the unconventional, Nativity sets — also known as crèches — have become a staple of the Christmas season worldwide. 

Perhaps nowhere is the diversity and symbolism of the Nativity more apparent than at the University of Dayton’s Marian Library, which boasts one of the world’s largest crèche collections. Over the past 15 years, the library has amassed nearly 3,600 Nativities of all shapes and sizes from every corner of the globe. And each year, the library helps others get into the Christmas spirit by putting some of their Nativities on display in an exhibit that runs from late November to the end of January. 

Kathleen Webb, the university’s dean of libraries, told Our Sunday Visitor that the exhibit has attracted a wide range of visitors and has something to offer everyone. 

“Many Catholics, and Christians in general, have the tradition of crèches and Nativities in their houses that are expressions of their faith, and this is an opportunity for us to put that symbol out in front of people,” Webb said. 

Widespread tradition 

Marist Father Johann Roten, director of research and special projects at the Marian Library, said the tradition of building three-dimensional representations of the Nativity stems from early Christian art depicting Christ’s birth. 

The earliest surviving crèche dates back to the late 12th century, but for many years the re-creation of the Nativity was mostly limited to placing a figure representing the baby Jesus in front of a church altar, Father Roten told OSV. But eventually the scenes became more complex and began to grow in popularity. 

“After the 16th century, this whole tradition took off, specifically in Italy,” he said. 

The interest in crèches continued to grow, and they became widely popular throughout the world by the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After a slight decline in popularity as focus shifted to more secularized Christmas images, Nativities had a resurgence toward the end of the 20th century, Father Roten said. 

Rich in symbolism 

As Nativities reached different cultures, they were often adapted to local customs and surroundings, with the birth of Jesus being staged in the region’s own familiar setting. 

“The manger is the central point, but everybody in the whole world is invited,” Father Roten explained. “Putting that into practice, different cultures say, ‘Everybody is invited, so who are the people that can be invited in my particular culture or geography?’” 

From native animals — including zebras, giraffes and polar bears — to indigenous plant life to members of the local community, crèches can exhibit dramatic diversity, with Christ’s birth always remaining as the focal point. With each society reimagining the Nativity story in its own way, it serves as a reminder of Christ’s connection to all cultures and people. 

“Jesus chose to be born in Israel, but he could have been born in my hometown, with my skin,” said Schoenstatt Sister of Mary M. Jean Frisk, assistant director for art and special projects at the Marian Library. “Jesus came to save the whole world, so if I see an African Nativity I stand in admiration of this culture that chooses to say, ‘He could have been born here, and I am bringing him to birth here.’” 

Each culture has their own traditional understanding of Jesus’ birth and who should be present, Father Roten said, from people in the community to more well-known figures. 

“When you go to different countries you would find different typical representatives of that culture, from professions such as the baker who brings bread to the manger all the way down to the devil, also present but somewhat hidden,” he said.  

The presence of the devil is one of a number of added touches to a Nativity set that can symbolize not merely the arrival of Christ but his passion and death as well.  

“The crèche is never only a crèche,” Father Roten said. “It comes as a consequence of the Old Testament and then leads to the New Testament. It is an attempt to figuratively represent the whole history of salvation.” 

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.

Hands-on teaching tool (sidebar)

When family members receive a gift from Jean Nickelman during the Advent season, there’s a good chance it is going to be a Nativity set. 

Nickelman, of Beavercreek, Ohio, understands how valuable the Nativity is when it comes to teaching children about the Catholic faith. While living in Europe with her husband, Charles, she said that she saw how families were able to share faith experiences through assembling elaborate Nativity scenes. 

She has shared the custom with her six children and 11 grandchildren, ensuring that each had at least one Nativity set. Doing so, she said, has provided the children a hands-on method of learning about the meaning of Christmas. 

“I think it makes it very real for them,” Nickelman said. “It is a way they can tell me what they have done, and it is a way to talk about Jesus being born and the excitement about it without sitting down and saying, ‘I want to teach you about this.’” 

She and her family have also made it an annual tradition to visit the University of Dayton’s Nativity collection, which she said has broadened the children’s view of their faith. 

“I am seeing my grandchildren brought up with a multicultural view of who God is,” she said. “They see that people all over the world are recognizing Jesus Christ.” 

Schoenstatt Sister of Mary M. Jean Frisk of Dayton’s Marian Library said that working with the Nativity allows children to learn through all of their senses and can serve as a means of bringing families together during Advent.

“When we work with the Nativity set in the home, you have an opportunity for children to realize that what we do is bringing Jesus to the world and we are giving birth to him in our own way,” she said. “We can’t necessarily use that symbolic language with children, but we can show that we are bringing him alive in our family, and that is the whole object of this kind of activity.”