Use the Bible as your guide -- and don't forget the donkey!
If you have to make a choice, for financial or aesthetic reasons, among the multitude of figures to include in your Nativity scene, let your decisions be guided by the Bible. Indeed, what better guide than the Gospels to help us best represent the birth of the Child Jesus? When we rely on the Scriptures, only about 10 characters are present around the Nativity. These are the ones from the texts of St. Luke and St. Matthew, the two evangelists who explicitly tell the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago.
1THE HOLY FAMILY
“So they (the shepherds) went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Child lying in the manger.” (Lk 2:16)
Mary and Joseph, whose total surrender to the will of God allowed Christ to come, are of course central characters in the Nativity and in Christian history. As for Jesus, on whom all eyes converge, He is the future King of the universe. A debate sometimes arises: should the Baby Jesus be “hidden” until Christmas Eve? Or can we put Him in the manger on the first Sunday of Advent? Each family can follow its own traditions; the main thing being that Jesus is present.
2THE ANGEL OF THE LORD
“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see-I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.’” (Lk 2:9-10)
The angel is not there to “look pretty” above the manger. Sent by God, the angel alerts the shepherds of the birth of Christ in the account of St. Luke (chapter 2). The angel therefore has a special place in the Nativity scene.
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped Him in bands of cloth, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Lk 2:7)
The shepherds are the first to be informed of the birth of Jesus and the first to come to worship Him. That’s why sheep have their place in the Nativity scene too! A shepherd and two sheep are sufficient to represent the flocks..
“On entering the house, they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they knelt down and paid Him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” (Mt 2:11)
The Magi, who are believed to have been Persian scholars, appear only in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 2). Their names—Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar—were only given to them in the 6th century. Also, it is only because they offer three gifts that popular tradition has deduced that there were three of them. They’re placed a little further away from the manger to indicate that they’re on their way. Their arrival in front of the Child Jesus is set on January 6, the day of the Epiphany.
5AND THE DONKEY AND THE OX?
Whether the lovers of Nativity scenes like it or not, donkeys and oxen are not mentioned in the biblical Nativity stories. Therefore, we don’t consider them indispensable. The popular tradition was actually drawn from an apocryphal gospel called the “Pseudo-Matthew” where it is written that “two days after the birth of the Lord, Mary left the cave, entered a stable and placed the Child in a manger, and the ox and donkey, bending their knees, worshiped Him.” (Pseudo-Matthew, chapter 14). Early Christian writers also connected the presence of these animals with a passage from Isaiah (1:3) read as a reference to the Messiah: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib,”