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The Presepio Nativity at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. Photo: Nelson Atkins, Mark McDonald.

St. Francis of Assisi created first Nativity scene 800 years ago

The familiar Nativity scenes that decorate many homes, churches and public spaces turn 800 years old this year. St. Francis of Assisi arranged the first manger scene in 1223 and included live animals inside a cave in the town of Greccio, Italy, where he told the villagers about the birth of Christ.

Following its inception at the time, there have been countless interpretations of the Nativity scene. They’re popular among all denominations and expressions of Christianity as a visible representation of the Christmas story.

In Kansas City, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art has displayed a Nativity for over 40 years. The Italian crèche figures, known as Neapolitan Presepio Figures, make up the nativity scene surrounding its huge Christmas tree. The figures are depicted in an ancient Roman ruin and include peasants, shepherds, animals, angels along with the newborn Jesus with parents Mary and Joseph. This year, however, the Nativity is not on display.

“The Presepios that was on view for 40 years was on loan from the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence,” Kathleen Leighton, media manager at the Nelson told Metro Voice.  “The figures are badly in need of preservation. For that reason, we have returned them to the Spencer.”

She says the magnificent tree will be on display until Dec. 31.

According to the first biographer of St. Francis, he desired to “represent the birth of that Child in Bethlehem in such a way that with our bodily eyes we may see what he suffered for lack of the necessities of a newborn babe and how he lay in manger between the ox and ass.”

Other famous Nativities include one at Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn, Pa., The museum hosts an annual exhibition of nativities collected from across the globe, featuring almost 50 scenes representing dozens of countries, including Kenya, Nicaragua, Ukraine and Italy. Although the Nativity scene typically consists of a father, mother and child, the arrangement has multiple variations. For example, one Nativity scene from Louisiana features alligators rather than livestock, and one of the wise men is shown playing a saxophone.

Director Brian Henderson told Pennsylvania television station WHYY that this year is special because the exhibition marks the Glencairn Museum’s reopening. Its castle-like building had been closed for 18 months for infrastructure renovations. “It is thrilling to welcome our visitors back,” he said. “To see the smiling faces of our visitors back in this magnificent space; it’s heartwarming.”

A.J. DiAntonio grew up fascinated by the nativity scene and has since launched his own business, Navidad Nativity, which builds Nativity scenes by collecting vintage and contemporary artisan figures. DiAntonio made an Italian-style scene for the museum, featuring Christ’s visitation amid a busy village scenario. The museum comprises about 100 square feet and includes 178 figures created by Tuscan artists.

“I had all the figures on shelves in my apartment,” he said. “Like Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood of make-believe, I take things off the shelves, come up with a different little vignette, start working on another one and eventually see if they all meld together. Somehow, I got lucky.”

“In a particular way, from the time of its Franciscan origins, the Nativity scene has invited us to ‘feel’ and ‘touch’ the poverty that God’s Son took upon himself in the Incarnation. Implicitly, it summons us to follow him along the path of humility, poverty, and self-denial that leads from the manger of Bethlehem to the cross,” Pope Francis stated in 2019.

This year the Vatican is recreating the first nativity scene to honor the anniversary.

If you are looking for living nativities to enjoy this weekend, there are several across the region.

Here’s a partial list produced by KC Parent magazine:

Dec 17, 2023 5:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.
Live Nativity
Hickory Grove Baptist Church

Dec 18, 2023 6:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.
Liberty Star Farm FREE Live Nativity
Liberty Star Farm

Dec 16, 2023 5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Live Nativity and Christmas Walk
Rolling Hills Presbyterian Church

Dec 16, 2023 4:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
CHRISTmas in the Barn
C Bar C LLC Horse Riding Lessons

Dec 16, 2023 4:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
A Night in Bethlehem
Peculiar UMC

Dec 16, 2023 5:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
Moonlight Nativity
Moonlight Nativity

Dec 17, 2023 4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Bethlehem Village
Hillside Christian Church KC

Dec 17, 2023 6:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Ride through Bethlehem
Good Shepherd Gladstone

Dec 16, 2023 5:30 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.
Fourth Annual Drive-Thru Nativity
Chandler Baptist Church


–Dwight Widaman | Metro Voice

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