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The History and Characters of the Nativity Scene

The festive season in the UK is abundant with twinkling lights, heart-warming carols, and the rich aroma of mulled wine. One iconic representation that evokes the true spirit of Christmas is the story of the nativity scene. Its intricate characters and profound meaning make it a cornerstone of many a British Christmas celebration. But who are the primary characters of the nativity scene, and how has their representation changed over the years?

Origin of the Nativity Scene

The nativity scene's inception can be traced back to St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. Seeking to cultivate the true essence of Christmas and to steer the attention away from commercial festivities, St. Francis created a live nativity scene in Greccio, Italy, in 1223. This endeavour was aimed at offering a visual representation of the birth of Jesus, and it became an instant sensation. Over time, this trend travelled to different parts of Europe, and eventually, the UK embraced it with open arms.

The Key Characters

Mary and Joseph

The central figures, Mary and Joseph, are always present, symbolising unwavering faith and devotion. Mary, the mother of Jesus, cradles her newborn, reflecting maternal love and warmth.

Baby Jesus

Often placed in a manger, Baby Jesus is the focal point. Representing hope, love, and divinity, his presence reminds us of the reason for the season.

The Angel

You might wonder, who is the angel in the nativity scene? The angel, usually referred to as the Angel Gabriel, heralded the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. Their presence in the nativity scene serves as a divine messenger, bringing tidings of great joy.

The Shepherds

Representing the humble and the meek, shepherds are usually depicted with their flock, having been the first to hear the good news of Christ's birth.

The Wise Men

Often, the question arises: who are the wise men in the Christmas nativity? Traditionally, they are three in number, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Their journey from distant lands signifies the universality of Jesus's message.


Cows, sheep, and donkeys are typically part of the scene, representing the stable environment where Jesus was born.

The Traditional Nativity Scene Decoration

A traditional nativity scene decoration in the UK is often compact, designed to fit as tabletop Christmas decoration or a mantlepiece. Made from various materials, such as wood, porcelain, or even hand-knitted fabrics, it serves as a reminder of the humble beginnings of Jesus. Some families also opt for large outdoor nativity scenes, bringing their gardens to life during the festive season.

How has the Nativity Scene has Changed?

Over the years, Christmas nativity scenes have changed in its representation. While the core characters remain consistent, the artistic interpretations, materials used, and accompanying details have evolved. Today, nativity scenes may incorporate modern materials like glass, metal, or even recycled items. Some also incorporate local or contemporary figures to make the scene more relatable to the present-day audience.

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