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Nativity sets from around the world tell the same “greatest story ever told”

Zelda Caldwell - published on 12/03/18

These handmade crêches present Jesus’ birth as seen through different cultural lenses.

The history of the Nativity scene dates back to St. Francis of Assisi, who on Christmas Eve in 1223, in the small Italian village of Greccio, put together a tableau of live animals and villagers representing the Child Jesus, Our Lady, St. Joseph, the Magi, the shepherds and the angels.

News of this living Nativity scene spread and gained in popularity, inspiring artisans to create crêches that could be displayed in churches or private homes. In 18th-century Naples, some of the most elaborate scenes were created, with miniature figures and accessories, which wealthy families and churches would display in the weeks before Christmas.

The tradition of the Nativity scene continues today. From the most elaborate sets found in Italy and Spain, involving architecturally detailed buildings and running water, to those fashioned out of clay by Native Americans, each set tells the same story of birth of Jesus in a manger, the “greatest story ever told.”

It’s a story that wasn’t, of course, just for the shepherds in Bethlehem or Italians in Assisi’s day. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “Born into poverty in the manger, Jesus came to offer everyone the joy and peace which alone can satisfy the needs of the human soul.”

In her books Nativities of the World and its companion volume Nativities of the Southwest, collector Susan Topp Weber presents beautiful color photographs of some of the most beautiful Nativity sets from private collections.

According to Weber, American collectors of Nativities tend to seek a great variety of Nativity sets, unlike European collectors who work to enhance and expand their Nativity scenes. Her books feature photos of Nativities from Europe, Australia, Mexico, Central and South America, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the United States, most of which have never before been published.

To see more photos of Nativities from around the world, these books are available for purchase from the publisher here and here.

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