5 of the world’s most stunning nativity scenes

5 of the world’s most stunning nativity scenes

The splendid days leading up to Christmas are made even more magical by gorgeously decorated Christmas trees and charming nativity scenes. Musement shares five of the world’s most spectacular nativities.

The Christmas season is magical: lights, garland, snow, Christmas trees, ornaments and, of course, the nativity. A lot of thought goes into the ritual of a traditional nativity. Firstly, the scene should reproduce Christ’s birth as closely as possible, and thus Palestine is recreated: A sandy, riverless landscape rich with shrubs and flowers, studded with white houses and featuring an inn and a cave. Next, the different statues are arranged to depict a precise moment: The shepherds and characters who witness the birth of Jesus are followed by Mary and Joseph, who start their journey on 1 December from an outer corner and then each day, are placed closer to the inn, which they finally reach on Christmas Eve with their ox and the donkey in tow. On the night of 24 December, baby Jesus is placed in a manger surrounded by angels. Lastly, a comet is added over the grotto as a signal for the Magi who arrive from afar with gifts on the Epiphany (6 January).

The nativity tradition is rooted in Catholicism, and for this reason nativities were not permitted in the European Lutheran countries for centuries (contrary to the Christmas tree custom which made no effort to assert itself). The ban was lifted in the 1920’s and since then, the nativity has become a Swedish Christmas tradition, often found in hospitals and churches, while in Finland it is common practice for school children to interpret the nativity.

The nativity boasts diverse traditions, often reinterpreted with different customs depending on the location. Here are five spectacular nativities found throughout the world.

1) Naples

The Neapolitan nativity tradition is undoubtedly the world’s most famous and consists of two parts: the mystery and the partition. The mystery contains Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the angels, the ox and the donkey while partition houses a tavern, the proclamation and the market. The scene does not take place in Palestine, but rather a mountain landscape with a brightly colored background in shades of pink, ochre and brick to resemble a winter sunset. The many characters include the beggar, the lame man, the blind, the glory of the angels, the gypsy, the Benin (a sleeping pastor that misses out on the action) and at the end, the Three Kings with the Moors are added. The nativity scene is a very important part of Neapolitan culture: in fact, not only is Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples home to the oldest and world’s most visited workshops of nativity scene artisans (the tourists love to buy both traditional figurines and those that depict politicians and celebrities), but at Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, there is a whole area dedicated to the history of the nativity starting with the sixteenth century. Moreover, the play “Christmas in the Cupiello Home” by unforgettable Neapolitan playwright Eduardo De Filippo, revolves around the protagonist’s mania for the nativity preparation. In fact, “te piace o presepio?”, or “do you like the crib?”, is last sentence of the play).


Nativity figure artisan shops in San Gregorio Armeno, Naples

2) Piedmont

Piedmont in northern Italy has a very special local Nativity tradition that includes a statue of Gelindo who, according to tradition, provided hospitality for Mary and Joseph in his hut before they arrived in Bethlehem. He’s usually represented playing the Italian bagpipes with a lamb sitting on his shoulders. The theater also honors Gelindo in a play written in local dialect that is a half-sacred/half-comic representation of the Christmas season. The script recounts how Gelindo, a grumpy pastor with heart of gold, leaves his home in Monferrato to visit Bethlehem for the emperor’s census, subsequently meeting and helping Joseph and Mary.

Gelindo, a figure with a lamb on his shoulders who always appears in the nativity scenes of Piedmont

3) Catalunya

The Catalunya region of Spain features a character who is not found in any other nativity scene: the Caganer. Um… yes, it is so named for the very reason that you imagine. His statue is a shepherd crouching with his pants down, and wearing a typical Catalan red beret and a belt . Some place the caganer in the middle of the scene while others place him in a somewhat more secluded position, well-suited to his purpose. It’s natural to question the presence of this statue among the Holy Family? Well, it seems that its function is superstitious: It is a source of luck and happiness that brings to the fertility of the earth. It is therefore a good omen for the coming year and its omission from the Nativity is believed to bring bad luck.

The Caganer, perhaps the most irreverent nativity figure of them all

4) The Peruvian nativity scene

The Catholic conquistadors brought Christmas to Peru during the sixteenth century, and the Peruvian people have made the holiday their own by incorporating existing Andean traditions into their festivities. The Peruvian nativity scene is the perfect example of how traditions have merged, creating a spectacular result. It’s set up inside pumpkin shells and comprised of a colorful and diverse cast of characters dressed in traditional Peruvian garb. If you look carefully, you will notice that a sheep and a llama cozy up next to Jesus instead of the usual ox and donkey.

The colorful Peruvian nativity scene built inside a pumpkin shell

5) Dublin

Since 1995, the Dublin City Council and the Irish Farmers Association have presented a beautiful unusual tradition: The Live Animal Nativity, consisting of life-size statues and actual animals. Every year the Irish Farmers Association contributes donkeys, sheep and goats: transporting the animals to Dublin every morning and back to the farm in the evening. The nativity is set up at Mansion House, bringing a piece of the countryside to the heart of the city. Moreover, the live nativity allows children to come into contact with animals. Admission is free, but donations are accepted with proceeds going to Mansion House Fuel Fund charity. The Live Animal Crib is open to the public every day from 11.00am to 6.00pm until 2.00pm on Christmas Eve.

The live animal nativity in Dublin

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