When the first nativity scene was staged by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223 — in an attempt to place the emphasis of Christmas upon the worship of Christ rather than upon secular materialism and gift giving —, maybe no one would have thought that it would become so popular and spread throughout Christendom. It was a living scene in a cave near Greccio, central Italy, with humans and animals cast in the Biblical roles — it is described by Saint Bonaventure in his Life of Saint Francis of Assisi written around 1260.
Within a hundred years every church in Italy was expected to have a nativity scene at Christmastime. Eventually, statues replaced human and animal participants, and static scenes grew to elaborate affairs with richly robed figurines placed in intricate landscape settings. Since then, this tradition continues to this day, with small versions made of porcelain, plaster, plastic or cardboard sold for display in the home — especially in cities like Naples, where a real area in the historic center is dedicated to the “presepe”.
Nativity scenes have not escaped controversy, and in the United States of America their inclusion on public lands or in public buildings has provoked court challenges. In 1994, at Christmas, the Park Board of San Jose, California, removed a statue of the infant Jesus from Plaza de Cesar Chavez Park and replaced it with a statue of the plumed Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl. In response, protestors staged a living nativity scene in the park.
In December 2004, Madame Tussaud’s London, England, United Kingdom nativity scene featuring waxwork models of soccer star David Beckham and his wife Victoria Beckham as Joseph and Mary, and Kylie Minogue as the Angel, although it was clearly intended in the spirit of fun, provoked strong reactions — the scene was damaged in protest by James Anstice, a member of the Jesus Fellowship Church, who pushed over one of the figures and knocked the head off another. In 2005, the Barcelona city council provoked a public outcry by commissioning a nativity scene which did not include the Caganer — a traditional figure from Catalonia depicting a person defecating.