Some kind of farm scene acts as a backdrop, usually a stable or grotto. Joseph and Mary crouch around the Baby, prominently displayed in a manger. (That was one of the important ways the Christ Child would be identified!) Animals, especially cattle, donkeys,and the occasional sheep, hover nearby. (Baby Jesus is sleeping in their feed trough, after all.) They may, like the set above, be joined by camels who carried the Three Wise Men (technically, they didn’t show up until months later…but no matter). Who else would be keeping the sheep company, but shepherds, who were informed by an angel choir that the Christ Child was born. (Yes, an angel or two are usually included, as well.)
Manger scenes can be just three figures: Joseph, Mary and the Christ Child. They can also, like the traditional Italian presepe, or presepio, have dozens of figures in a wide variety of ages and occupations. These elaborate creches generally appear on Dec. 8, a date traditionally honoring Mary and the Virgin Birth, then remain on display through Eiphany, Jan. 6.
It’s easy to set up a Nativity set — clear a space, then plop the figures down. Use a chest, table or other public display area that lets you enjoy looking at them all through Christmas. And if it’s low enough, it will also encourage interaction — our daughters, when young, were forever moving a cow to stare into the manger, or a Wise Man further off, apparently to talk things over with a nearby sheep or goat. (Now in their twenties, they still take pleasure in doing this, although they’ll introduce new cast members, as well. I still have no idea how Spiderman and dinosaurs managed to arrive in Bethlehem in time… but never mind.)
There are other things to try, as well:
Make Your Own Figures
The Italians enjoyed carving from wood or modeling a figure from clay, and adding a figure or two every year. (If they resembled friends or family members, so much the better.) If your artisan skills are limited, plain ceramic figures are often available in craft stores, ready for a coat of acrylic or oil paint. Or try interpreting them in cloth or cardboard, instead.
Do You Have Kids? Get Them Involved
They may want to make their own figures, too. (The Nativity set in this link is free, and ready to print out on paper, cut out and color.)
One tradtiion is to gather straw for Baby Jesus’ bed — but a piece can only be added if that person has said or done something kind for someone else. As children gradually add bits of straw to the manger over the weeks before Christmas, they’ll hopefully be learning good manners and attitudes, as well.
Add A Natural Touch
Build your own stable or cave out of rocks, tree branches, sticks and such. Moss, grapevines or seedpods add texture, and soften the overall look. (Just be careful not to put your candles toooo close.)
Start A Collection
Who said you had to have just one Nativity set? Look for sets that use different styles, like the Swedish-inspired version shown above. Looking for items like this may become a way to remember visits to special places — Nativity sets make unique souvenirs.
Or Visit One
One of my family’s favorite parts of the Christmas season, growing up, was visiting a live Nativity scene in a nearby town. (How did those shepherds hold still so long in that freezing cold!) Churches will often display large creches, like the one shown below. If you’re out looking at Christmas lights anyways, take a minute or two to drive by your local places of worship…they’ll often have decorative scenes to inspire you.
Why not try something completely different this year, for your Nativity set? Put it somewhere unexpected — Tasha Tudor’s family arranged their manger scene in the unused baking oven in their fireplace — or tucked it into a stone ledge out in the woods. (They would place luminarias or flickering candles along the path, as a guide to follow.)