When Saint Francis of Assisi staged the first ever nativity scene in a cave in 1223, with a simple manger, ox and an ass, he could have had no idea what he was starting. Almost 800 years later, his humble tableau has been transformed into everything from miniature toy sets that grace mantelpieces around the world, to gigantic plastic lawn ornaments and theme-park sized attractions.
The scene of the holy couple, shepherds, wise men and attendant livestock – which is not in fact biblically accurate – has become so widely reproduced that it can now be understood even by a simple arrangement of blocks, as a recent wave of minimalist nativity sets has shown.
Sebastian Bergne’s Colour Nativity is five identically-sized wooden columns – which stand in for the wise men, Joseph and shepherd, each in their characteristic colour – alongside a shorter blue block for Mary and a white oblong for the baby Jesus. A slender golden pillar completes the set as the Star of Bethlehem.
“The project makes use of our learned experience from exposure to thousands of images, toys and Christmas cards over the years,” says Bergne. “Each of the characters is recognisable by its colour, proportion and place in the composition.” But the price tag is anything but minimal – the set is available for £85 as a limited edition of 250.
The Colour Nativity pieces pack snugly into a box that doubles as the stable. Photograph: Sebastian Bergne
If all these bright colours are too much for your home’s neutral interiors, help is at hand in the form of German artist Oliver Fabel’s Minimalist Nativity – which takes the form of 11 wooden Jenga-like blocks, printed with each character’s name – yours for €26 (around £21).
Oliver Fabel’s Minimalist Nativity. Photograph: Oliver Fabel
Emilie Voirin’s Minimal Nativity. Photograph: Emilie Voirin
Online crafts emporium Etsy is brimming with alternative nativity sets, like this one by Little Sapling Toys, which features the cast of characters engraved on to each block.
Nativity set by Little Sapling Toys. Photograph: Little Sapling Toys
At the other end of the scale, Americans have been going all out this year with several drive-thru nativity scenes on show across the States. One of the most elaborate, in Avasu, Arizona, features live animals – a camel, six sheep and some lambs.
“Every year we try to enhance the scene to make it more realistic,” event co-coordinator Carol McDougal told the Havasu News. “We want people to feel like they’re travelling in Bethlehem” (an illusion that might be somewhat shattered by looking from the window of an SUV).
The ‘world’s largest nativity scene’ in São Paio de Oleiros, Portugal
Meanwhile, building on its displays of previous years, the parish of São Paio de Oleiros in northern Portugal has put on what it claims to be the world’s largest ever nativity scene: a 2,000 sq m area filled with 7,000 figurines. The vast undertaking requires 50km of electric cables and 3,000 LED lamps, “not to mention a good few tonnes of stones, nine waterfalls and three truck loads of clay, sand and black earth,” volunteer Joaquim Silva told the Portugal News.
As well as the usual religious tableaux, it includes scenes of the governor of Madeira dancing with the President of Portugal, and the late Fado singer Amália, among other well-known local characters. See a 360° panorama of the display here.
The contentious nativity display in Santa Monica, California. Photograph: Danny Moloshok/Reuters
But nativity scenes have not gone without controversy. This year, a lifesize nativity display in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park was the subject of a lawsuit that has finally seen it removed, following a campaign by atheist activists who objected to a religious display on public property. The campaign, which began several years ago, was ramped up last year with rival scenes in the park, including a supposed homage to the “Pastafarian” religion complete with its Flying Spaghetti Monster deity.
The controversial ‘homosexual nativity scene’ that appeared on Facebook. Photograph: kienyke.com
Similar outrage was recently sparked in Colombia when images of “a homosexual nativity scene” appeared on Facebook. The scene, featuring two Josephs but no Mary, was created by a gay couple in the hope that it would help bring about reform in the country’s gay marriage laws – but the catholic church has declared it “sacrilege”. Thousands of Colombians have also taken to social networking sites to slam the pair, with many saying they show “a lack of respect to God and all Christians.”
True, it may not be biblically accurate – but neither is having the holy family dressed in Mexican folk costume, or even having the shepherds and wise men at the scene at the same time. And it was an immaculate conception after all.