The Traveling Nativity Scene (or Creche)
In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi first thought of celebrating the birth of Christ in a new way, by recreating in church the scene of the first Christmas. Over the centuries it has become common practice for both congregations and Christians in their homes to have a nativity scene, including the figures of Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Angels, Shepherds, Magi and some animals. There is a marvelous variety of materials that these nativity scenes have been crafted from!
From our time as part of University Hill Congregation in Vancouver, Canada, we learned about and practice “the traveling nativity scene.” This is something that can be easily done in both the church and at home…
The First Sunday in Advent
We set up the stable for our nativity scene the night before (Christian New Year’s Eve) in a central area of our living room, on a blue cloth. Note that the stable is empty at this point, except for the manger if it is unattached to the baby Jesus in your nativity set. On the next morning, the First Sunday in Advent, a box appears on the dining room table. In it our son discovers some animals – a donkey, a cow and a sheep – which it is his job to then place in the stable. Often these animals are moved about the stable, as if anxious in their waiting, by our son as he interacts with the scene; on occasion they have been joined by other creatures (a T-Rex on the roof of the stable one year) or objects (such as toy cars) who join in the waiting for awhile.
The Second Sunday in Advent
On the morning of the Second Sunday in Advent the box on the dining room table contains the figures of Mary and Joseph. These are then placed in Nazareth – a point in the house far from the stable. Each day after that, our son moves them a step forward as they travel towards Bethlehem.
The Third Sunday in Advent
The shepherds and their flock of sheep are found in the box on the morning of the Third Sunday in Advent. These are then placed in their own spot, often a small table in the living room, not far from the stable.
The Fourth Sunday in Advent
Usually on the eve of (before) the final Sunday in Advent I hang a special star in the most easterly point of the house. In the morning the magi are found in the box and placed beneath the star. Each day after that the star is found in a new location, usually one step farther west in the direction of the stable. The magi do not arrive at the stable, however, until the day of Epiphany, January 6th.
At some point in the day, before heading to worship, Mary and Joseph finally arrive at the stable. Having wrapped up the baby Jesus (and his manger too if they are attached to each other), the first gift of Christmas is placed in the stable, along with the figure of an angel, as the rest of the family heads out the door to worship. Only after the gathered church has marked and celebrated “Christ’s Mass” do we return home to continue the story with our own nativity scene. Our son unwraps the first gift of Christmas and places the baby Jesus in his manger between Mary and Joseph in the stable. The angel then goes to visit the shepherds, “keeping watch over their flock by night”. Someone reads the message of the angel given to the shepherds (Luke 2: 8-12). If you have more angel figures, they should be brought out now and placed with the announcing angel. We sing together an appropriate hymn, such as “Angels We Have Heard On High”. Then the shepherds rush to the stable to see “this thing that has taken place” (you can decide with your children whether or not the whole flock of sheep come too or if one of the shepherds stays behind with them).
The Day of Epiphany
The magi have continued their daily trek, following the star, throughout the twelve days of Christmas. If it has not already happened, before January 6th, the shepherds and their sheep will have returned to their field near by the stable. Only two of the four gospels have birth narratives and they are striking in their differences. For example, only the shepherds are in Luke’s story while only the Magi are in Matthew’s. These differences add to the complexity and richness of the stories we have of Jesus’ earthly life and are important, in time, to make note of and meditate upon.
We read together the story of the magi (Matthew 2: 1-12). The star now hangs over the stable and the magi finally arrive and offer their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child. We talk about the importance that, though the Magi were not Jewish, they have traveled a long distance to worship with joy a small Jewish child as King. We sing together “We Three Kings” and sometimes exchange one last small gift with one another.
Using the Traveling Nativity Scene in a Congregation
With only a few adjustments, this same pattern can be practiced by a congregation using their own nativity scene. If the worship service includes a time at some point for the children, then this becomes what is done with them throughout Advent. If such a time is not a usual part of the worship service, perhaps a special Advent time can be set aside at the beginning before the formal worship begins.
Mary and Joseph will travel only for two Sundays – Advent Three and Four. They may be moved before worship begins by those in charge of setting up for worship (and then their new position is pointed out later to the children) or incorporated into the time with the children by having some of the children move them.
Make sure different children are given a chance each Sunday to help with the traveling nativity!