How to Create and Display a Nativity Scene

A nativity scene.

The nativity scene is emblematic of the Christian Christmas tradition. You can easily incorporate this portrayal of the first Christmas into your yearly celebration.

What It's Made Of

It doesn't have to be fancy or antique. It doesn't have to be store-bought. The idea behind a nativity scene is the birth of Jesus, so as long as there are a few basic elements present the celebration and the spirit of Christmas are present too.

What You Need

Here's a list of elements usually found in a nativity scene. Some are essential to the story of Jesus' birth, and some are not.

Baby Jesus: I have seen people use everything from a Cabbage Patch Kid with an old towel wrapped around it to a Play-doh baby in a Barbie crib, from a store-bought ceramic figurine to a tiny origami baby. One thing is for sure: there has got to be a baby Jesus.

Mary: Jesus' mother, the Virgin Mary, is usually shown dressed in blue or light brown colored garments.

Joseph: Mary's faithful husband-to-be, Jesus' fatherly caretaker, usually has a bearded face and wears long, dark-colored robes.

Angel: Can be your typical angel with wings and glitter or a simple figure in prayer. The angel is usually seated higher up than the rest of the figurines, so get creative and hang or boost your angel in the scene.

Shepherds: They followed the star that guided them to the babe in the manger. Long robes, shepherd's staffs, and some sheep usually make their presence known.

Three kings: These wise men came to worship Jesus and bring him gifts shortly after his birth. Precious metals and stones adorn their brightly colored garments.

Animals: Usually camels, donkeys, and sheep, the animals join the scene since Mary and Joseph couldn’t find any place to stay in the inns in Bethlehem

How to Assemble

Depending on the type of nativity you have or are making, your set-up will vary. First, choose a place to set the scene. If yours is a large scene (using a doll as Jesus, for example), you might want to find an open area where people can walk around and enjoy your creative handiwork. For smaller scenes, use your coffee table, a shelf, or an extra end table. Try to make sure your nativity will be noticed, wherever you decide to set up.

If you want to have a little barn or shed-like enclosure to house the scene, that's fine, but it's not necessary either. Some people also like to lay hay (real or the fake stuff from craft stores) or "angel hair" (white fluffy cloud-like material, also available at craft stores) underneath the scene as a base. It's entirely up to you, though.

The baby Jesus should always be the center of the scene—after all, he's the reason we're celebrating. Mary and Joseph are usually set to the left and right of Jesus if he's placed in a manger or crib-like set-up. Some nativities show Mary holding Jesus. It's a nice touch and makes the whole scene appear more intimate.

Shepherds and animals circle around the holy family, and wise men are also gazing from a bit of a distance. All should be facing Jesus, as the center of attention in the scene.

Who Comes When?

Some churches have the practice of gradually building the nativity scene throughout the weeks of advent. The gathering is spread out over time, sometimes to accompany the lessons read from the Bible, and figures are placed accordingly. What's nice about this practice is that it makes the progression of events clearer by showing how, and in what order, they may have occurred.

This means, of course, that the manger lays empty in the barn. Animals may be displayed, but the people shouldn't arrive at the beginning. Mary and Joseph travel closer to Bethlehem and arrive on Christmas Eve.

Then place the shepherds and their animals closer so that they arrive on Christmas to see baby Jesus when he is born. The wise men shouldn't arrive until January 6th, or Three Kings Day as some call it.

However, if you decide to make your nativity scene, make sure to think about the meaning of the beauty of the first Christmas.