Nativities are about more than festive decor—the act of arranging the scene each year allows believers around the world to consider the question posed in scripture “What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ?” (Matthew 27:22).
The year AD 1223 was drawing to a close. Saint Francis of Assisi was on the road after a visit to Rome when he felt compelled to make an unplanned stop in the small Italian town of Greccio. Perhaps he paused because the countryside of hills and caves reminded him of Bethlehem, and his mind lingered on the striking mosaics depicting the Savior’s birth he’d just seen in Rome. Regardless, a love for Jesus Christ was burning in his heart, and Saint Francis decided to travel no further until he did something about it.
Stopping in Greccio, Saint Francis called on a local man named John for help. His wish? “To bring to life the memory of that babe born in Bethlehem, to see as much as possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he was laid upon a bed of hay.”
Faithful John found what was needed to fulfill Saint Francis’s request, and on the night of December 25, the people of Greccio gathered around a cave outside the village, where the simple scene of an ox and a donkey standing by a manger full of hay awaited them. The people brought with them torches and flowers, but it was their joy that truly brightened the scene. For what was once just a story of a baby’s quiet birth in a distant land was now tangibly before them. They, like the shepherds of old, had arrived to stand in curious and reverent awe of the Christ child.
“This is how our tradition began: with everyone gathered in joy around the cave, with no distance between the original event and those sharing in its mystery,” wrote Pope Francis in 2019 after visiting Greccio, where, hundreds of years later, nativities are still set up each year.
“The nativity scene is like a living gospel rising up from the pages of sacred scripture,” the pope continued. “As we contemplate the Christmas story, we are invited to set out on a spiritual journey, drawn by the humility of the God who became man in order to encounter every man and woman. We come to realize that so great is his love for us that he became one of us, so that we in turn might become one with him.”1
What began spontaneously in an inconsequential cave in Italy is now a beloved part of tradition and testimony for people from Haiti to Vietnam. Each year, young and old pick up cherished nativity figurines and arrange them on tables, windowsills, and fireplace mantels; these simple actions have profound spiritual implications.
“Through our own annual ritual of setting up a nativity—of partaking in the creation of an image of Christ’s birth—we can communicate our own vision of the wonder, joy, and love of this evidence of God’s condescension,” say Latter-day Saint scholars Doris R. Dant and Richard G. Oman.2
As the tradition of nativity scenes has spread around the world, so, too, have creative expressions of that sacred night. When artists create scenes reflective of their own cultures and families then add their personal touch by arranging the nativities in their homes, this custom becomes a way for all to liken the scriptures unto themselves (see 1 Nephi 19:23). Each nativity display is a way to welcome in the sweet sentiment penned in the Christmas lullaby “Away in a Manger”:
Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.3
Deseret Book alone offers 335 nativities originating from 27 countries. From the hammered metal of Haiti to the homespun felt of Mongolia, artists’ work reminds us of the all-encompassing nature of Jesus Christ’s love. For a sample of the worldwide influence of nativities, here’s a look at how the Christmas story—testimonies of the Christ child Himself—is brought to life through five art styles from around the world.
A Hammer of Faith In Haiti
Where some saw only used metal oil drums ready to be discarded, Haitian blacksmith Georges Liautaud saw potential. In the early 1950s, Georges removed the tops and bottoms from used 55-gallon oil drums and rolled the metal out flat. He then used his blacksmith tools to hammer out simple metal crosses to decorate headstones in the nearby Croix-des-Bouquets cemetery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. His practice later spread to other artisans in the country and developed into a treasured art form, providing income for artists as well as a way to recycle what was ready to be discarded into a thing of beauty. Today, Haitian artisans create all sorts of designs of both secular and religious significance from oil-drum metal.
For oil-drum nativities, artisans cut holes and shapes out of the metal by hand, fashioning them into the Holy Family and other figures in the nativity scene. Each figure is accented with texture, and then the final design is painted and lacquered on. The use of recycled metal in these nativities can serve as a reminder that the Christ child came to reclaim the world from sin and suffering, and that through His sacrifice “every thing shall be restored to its perfect frame.”4
The Symbol of a Sheep in Mongolia
Across the world from the beaches of Haiti, a Mongolian woman named Ariuntuya lives in a yurt with her husband and three sons. There she uses felt, one of the oldest textiles in the world, to handcraft beautiful 10-piece nativity scenes. Her felt is created using ancient Mongolian techniques handed down from generation to generation.
Traditionally, families and community members would gather at appointed times to work together to create felt. The process begins by shearing a family’s flock of sheep. Next, the wool is cleaned and beaten with long rods to separate the fibers. Then the wool is laid out in layers on top of an older piece of felt, sometimes called the “mother felt,” to ensure it is the right size, and hot water is sprinkled on top. The wetted wool is then rolled around a heavy pole and wrapped securely in canvas. Finally, the rolled-up wool is pulled across the grasslands by a horse at a gradually increasing pace until the fibers have condensed and permanently locked together.
The resulting felt can then be used for a variety of purposes, including making clothes, shoes, and insulation for a yurt. But Ariuntuya takes a more creative approach, stitching together pieces of dyed felt to make figurines and animals in her nativities. Part of the benefit of a 10-piece set like Ariuntuya’s is that the figurines can be arranged however the owner desires, inviting them to consider for themselves the symbolism of each piece.
“Because creating a nativity formed of multiple pieces is incomplete until someone arranges it, such scenes require their owners to literally consider ‘What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ?’ [Matthew 27:22]” Dant and Oman write.5 “In deciding where to place the figures in relationship to each other, . . . devout arrangers seem to convey, perhaps subconsciously, their own beliefs about the Savior and his birth.”
For example, consider the placement of the sheep and shepherds and how they are often placed to face the manger where the Christ child lies. In his letter regarding the nativity, Pope Francis said, “With what emotion should we arrange the . . . sheep and shepherds in the nativity scene! As we do so, we are reminded that, as the prophets had foretold, all creation rejoices in the coming of the Messiah.”
Ariuntuya’s soft pieces offer a safe way for children to experiment freely with arranging their own Christmas scene, a tradition that helps families rejoice in the birth of Jesus Christ.
Weaving Kente Cloth in Ghana
From their home in the greater Accra region of Ghana, Beatrice and her family carry on a tradition that is older than the country itself. Colorful, handwoven kente cloth can be traced back to the Asante Empire, which occupied roughly the same area as modern Ghana. Local legend says that two young men went into the forest one night to check their animal traps and were amazed to see how a spider’s intricate web shone in the moonlight. The spider taught the young men how to weave, and they created beautiful designs for the kingdom’s ruler. Members of the royalty wore the cloth like a toga for centuries, and it is still worn by community leaders at special occasions.
Today, Beatrice works with a group of young artisans in the Volta region who weave kente cloth. It takes a full day for the artisans to weave a single strip of cloth, which Beatrice then cuts and sews into three to four figurines for her nativity sets. Each of the seven pieces included in the sets wears a different pattern of cloth, so creating a full nativity is a labor-intensive project. Beatrice’s art allows her to carry on a treasured cultural tradition and stay at home to care for her two children. She also has been able to employ some of her family members to help make the nativities.
The richly colorful kente cloth and its association with royalty can serve as a reminder of the Christ child’s kingly destiny. President Russell M. Nelson beautifully taught, “At His first coming, Jesus came almost in secret. But at His Second Coming, the Lord’s glory ‘shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.’ Then He shall ‘rule as King of Kings and reign as Lord of Lords.’”6
The Gifts of Vietnam
About 10 miles outside the capital city of Hanoi, Vietnam, sits an ancient village called Bat Trang. Over 1,000 years ago, the king of Vietnam designated the village for the production of ceramics because of the area’s easy access to abundant white clay and to the waters of the Red River. Fast-forward to 2022, and Bat Trang’s inhabitants are still making ceramics. Tourists travel there from around the world to learn how to craft ceramics in traditional ways, and professionally designed vases and other decorative pieces are shipped out from Bat Trang to destinations worldwide.
The nativity pictured above is produced by the Nguyen family in Bat Trang. They pour clay into a mold by hand, dry it, and remove it from the mold before each piece is fired in a kiln. The design is simple and elegant and includes the three Wise Men holding their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Almost none of humankind will present physical gifts to the Lord, but the Wise Men figurines holding their precious gifts can serve as reminders that all can offer the very best they have to the Savior of the world. That offering may include the gift of “a broken heart and a contrite spirit” (3 Nephi 9:20) and humble service to others.
A Loom in Turkey
No country is limited to a single art style, and the following two nativities from Turkey demonstrate a variety of ways the people creatively express their spiritual convictions.
The first nativity reflects Turkey’s rich history of textiles, specifically weaving and rugs. Nomadic tribes from central Asia settled in the region of Anatolia, Turkey, in the 12th century and brought with them their traditional rug weaving. Rugs and carpets were a common part of nomadic life because they provided a smooth surface for people who moved frequently enough to make other types of flooring impractical.
The loom nativity offers a sample of that rich Turkish tradition of weaving. The looms come from the Anadolu Artisan Group in Istanbul, which provides opportunities for Turkish artisans to refine their traditional sewing skills so they can provide income for their families and keep the Turkish culture alive. On average, each nativity loom takes five days to make: the artisan assembles the loom, dyes the wool, and then weaves the rug. Each nativity varies slightly, as they are individually made.
A Manger in Turkey
The next nativity is a ceramic piece of artwork that comes from the opposite side of Turkey in the city of Iznik. Known as Nicea in ancient times, Iznik has been described by the Christian world as the third-holiest city, after Jerusalem and the Vatican. It was here that councils were held to issue the Nicene Creed, a religious document still widely used by Christian liturgy in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican communities.
This nativity set offers an opportunity to focus on Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. Each ceramic piece is hand-painted by Turkish artisans in the Anadolu Artisan Group and rests on a beautiful miniature Turkish rug. The simplicity of the set draws viewers’ eyes to the baby in the manger.
Although nativities around the world vary in the figurines included, the manger is a consistent feature. In fact, in Italian the nativity scene is known as a presepe, which comes from the Latin world praesepium, meaning “manger.” Many contemporary nativities depict a manger as a wooden box, but it also may have been carved from rock.7 The manger could have been used either as a watering trough or as a place for animals to feed—symbolic of Christ as the Bread of Life and He who offers living water. When that small babe grew up and was soon to begin His ministry, He declared to the woman at the well in Samaria that “whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst.”8 Later on in His ministry, He declared He was “the bread which came down from heaven” and caused just five loaves and two fishes to feed a multitude of 5,000 until they were full.9 This miracle reminds us that we can live full, meaningful lives through Christ.
A Precious Process
Christmas traditions and festivities bring joy and strengthen families—and they are an important part of teaching the next generation about Christ.
“The Christmas [nativity] is part of the precious yet demanding process of passing on the faith. Beginning in childhood, and at every stage of our lives, it teaches us to contemplate Jesus, to experience God’s love for us, to feel and believe that God is with us and that we are with him, his children, brothers and sisters all,” Pope Francis wrote.
Nativities are a way of expressing faith in the Savior and inviting others to think of Him, whether that occurs in the few seconds a stranger drives past a yard display or as a child sees a reminder of the Savior’s birth morning after morning on the fireplace mantel. Thoughtfully giving others the opportunity to consider the Savior through a nativity can be a beautiful way to respond to the invitation President Nelson once extended during the Christmas season: “I invite you to make room in your heart for those around you who may be struggling to see the light of the Savior and to feel His love.”
The joyful possibilities offered by the Savior’s light and love are as powerful now as they were on the night a new star shone in the sky, the shepherds gathered, and “away in a manger [with] no crib for a bed / the little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.”10
All nativities highlighted in the article (and many more) are available at Deseret Book.
1. Pope Francis, in “Apostolic Letter Admirable Signum of The Holy Father Francis on the Meaning and Importance of the Nativity Scene” (2019), vatican.va.
2. Doris R. Dant and Richard G. Oman, “Behold the Condescension of God,” BYU Studies 41, no. 3 (2002), 33.
3. “Away in a Manger,” Hymns, no. 206.
4. Alma 11:44.
5. Dant and Oman, “Behold the Condescension of God,” 30.
6. Russell M. Nelson, “Divine Gifts” (First Presidency Christmas devotional, Dec. 6, 2020), broadcasts.ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
7. See Jeffrey R. Chadwick, Stone Manger: The Untold Story of the First Christmas (Amazon: Kindle Direct Publishing, 2011), ch. 3 and fig. 4.
8. John 4:14.
9. Matthew 14:13–21.
10. “Away in a Manger.”