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A painted clay Nativity set featuring an infant Jesus in a straw manger with the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph kneeling behind Jesus in the center. A female angel in a purple dress with white wings kneels with her arms crossed beside Mary. Two male shepherds with five white sheep, an ox and a donkey gather around the family, along with a woman presenting a jug of liquid. The three Magi ride on animals—one on a white horse, one on a camel, one on an elephant—each accompanied by an attendant.

What Is a Nativity Set?

By Bridget Retzloff

A Nativity set, or crèche, is a three-dimensional representation of the birth of Jesus Christ. Some elements of a Nativity set are included because they are mentioned in the Bible. Other figures or elements are inspired by tradition or an artist’s creativity. 

“The Nativity scene is like a living Gospel rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture.” —Pope Francis in Admirabile signum

Many Catholics display Nativity sets in their homes during Advent and Christmas. Churches, schools and other public places may set up crèches as well. Some celebrate with a live Nativity scene that includes actors and animals playing the parts of the Holy Family and the visitors who came to see Jesus after his birth. St. Francis of Assisi is credited with enacting the first Nativity scene in 1223. Eight centuries later, this tradition continues, helping people to imagine the birth of Christ and perhaps even place themselves in the scene.

The Marian Library’s annual Christmas exhibit features Nativity sets from the Marian Library Crèche Collection. Although these exhibits focus on Christmas traditions, visitors of any faith or with no religious affiliation are welcome. As people engage with the exhibits, they’re encouraged to think about cultural or religious objects that have meaning in their personal or family traditions.

Who Is in a Nativity Set?

Scroll through each figure or group of figures from the Nativity set “Horse, Elephant, and Camel,” a work of clay by an artisan of Tlaquepaque, Mexico. This set is part of the Marian Library's Crèche Collection.

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