Secrets of the nativity scene



Fillarte’s insight into the fascination held by cribs tells of the origin and development of cribs, explains crib scene composition, provides a crib calendar, and illustrates the different types of cribs.

Secrets of the nativity scene  

Origin and development of the nativity scene


The biblical background to the nativity scene is found in the first two chapters of the gospels of Luke and Matthew, in which the Annunciation, Nativity, Adoration, and events from Jesus’s infancy are described. Early Christian nativity scenes simply depicted Jesus in the manger with the ox and donkey (ass). Saint Francis of Assisi is thought to be the originator of more graphic displays of Christmas events. In 1223, instead of giving a sermon, he recreated the nativity scene with live animals and people in the town of Greccio. During the Christmas season of 1562, Jesuits in Prague created the first nativity scene as we know it today, from which the custom spread. The idea is to illustrate the story as clearly as possible in order to convey a lasting image to believers. The church reforms under Maria Theresia and Joseph II banished nativity scenes into private circles in the 18th century, where they became increasingly popular. After the ban was lifted, the ornate nativity scenes returned to churches, whilst in domestic settings, simpler crib figurines made from wood, clay, and papier mâché were, and still are, preferred. Today, nativity scenes are still a firm feature of Christmas celebrations both at church and in the home.



Crib composition

The arrangement of figurines and other elements within a nativity scene is by no means coincidental. Their positions in the scene are an expression of their relationships to one another. Symbolically speaking, the nativity scene represents the entire world.

There is a crib canon, according to which a basic crib scene structure must always be maintained: the central focus (but not necessarily the middle) of the crib is the Christ Child. As regards the beholders, Mary is placed next to Jesus on the left – often kneeling – with Joseph on the right – usually standing. Since the earliest times, the ox and the donkey are placed to the right and left of the child, respectively. A lamb on the ground before the child, a gift from the shepherds, often symbolises the Sacrifice of Christ. The left-hand area of the nativity scene represents nature and night, with the shepherds, their fire, the meadow, etc. To the right we have the day-time, with cities and streets from where the procession of the Magi enters. Whilst God the Father is suspended high above the scene, angels are present on every level. The star or comet links heaven and earth.

Nativity composition  
Nativity calendar year  

Crib calendar

The crib calendar below provides advice on the arrangement of figurines and scenes throughout the whole year, especially from Advent to Easter.

DateFeature of crib scene
First Sunday of AdventInitial assembly of nativity scene

8th December
(Immaculate Conception)

Mary’s mother Anne learns of her daughter’s conception, Annunciation
15th December or
3rd Sunday of Advent
Journey to Bethlehem for the census, search for lodging

24th December
(Christmas Eve)

Birth of Christ in the stable with Mary and Joseph, ox and donkey, announcement to the shepherds, full crib arrangement
25th December
(Christmas Day)
Adoration of the shepherds
28th December
(Holy Innocents’ Day)
Massacre of innocent children in Bethlehem and death of Herod
31st December
(New Year’s Eve)
Jesus in the temple with the Praise of Simeon and the prophetess Anna
1st January
(New Year’s Day)
Procession of the Magi, the Wise Men from the East before King Herod
6th January
Adoration of the Magi
1st Sunday after
6th January
Baptism of Christ
2nd Sunday after
6th January
Wedding at Cana
9th day
before Candlemas
Flight into Egypt
2nd February
(40 days after Christmas, Candlemas)
End of the Christmas season and dismantling of all nativity scenes, Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus
Ash WednesdayAssembly of Lent scene (Passion and Easter cribs)

Crib types

Depending on the exterior of the scene, there are:

Stable cribs
Cave cribs
Temple cribs
Landscape cribs
Box cribs
Stage cribs
Triangular cribs
Circular cribs
Rotating cribs
Relief cribs

Mechanical cribs
Miniature cribs
Large-scale cribs
Paper cribs
Tree root cribs
Tree fungus cribs
Pitcher cribs
Lantern cribs
Barrel cribs

Depending on the geographic features, there are:
Eastern cribs
Alpine cribs
Neapolitan cribs
Sicilian cribs
Depending on the scenes depicted, there are:
Nativity cribs (entire Christmas story)
Lent cribs (Passion story)
Annual cribs (depicting the entire church year)
Simultaneous cribs (several depictions at the same time)
Versatile cribs (different scenes possible with the same figurines)
Special formats:
Christmas pyramids
Mechanical cribs
Living nativity scenes
Avant-garde cribs
Crib trails with scenes at different stations
Nativity types