Christmas and traditions go hand-in-hand. Activities, mementos, decorations, songs, and recipes are passed from one generation to the next and to the next. For many families, mine included, outdoor Christmas traditions were as important as those that unfolded indoors... building snowmen, ice skating, and enjoying the warmth of an outdoor winter fire. My favorite tradition was instituted by my father. He always rented a large car (often a limo!) and we would tour our home city, scoping out the best bedazzling lights and big outdoor Nativity scenes. That was my favorite Christmas tradition. And the families with houses on our tour? Outdoor decorations were their tradition, too - each year, they’d put out the same lighted displays or Nativity sets. Usually, they’d add pieces or themes from time to time. Always a mix of old and new, which makes for the best Christmas traditions.
One of the most popular outdoor Christmas traditions (which we always saw on our own tour) is the display of a large Nativity set. Nativity sets are common during Christmas time because of their very literal and powerful reminder that the holiday is really all about the birth of Jesus. Nativity sets and scenes represent who was present and some of what happened the night of Jesus’ birth.
Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first Nativity scene in 1223. His outdoor Nativity scene was a living one with real people and animals. The concept of St. Francis’ outdoor Nativity scene spread throughout the Christian world and, within 100 years, every church in Italy was expected to have a large Nativity scene at Christmas. Live Nativities gave way to the popularity of static outdoor Nativity sets in the 1300s. Still, at this time, Nativities were only found in or near churches but wealthy people had Nativity scenes inside their homes by the 1500s.
Nowadays, Nativity sets are found everywhere from the most modest of homes to gigantic shopping malls. We are used to seeing both smaller indoor and large outdoor Nativity sets. It is lovely to see an outdoor Nativity set amidst the flashy and bright lights and decor. An outdoor Nativity set can create a sense of balance, peacefulness, and depth to your yard’s Christmas decor.
I plan to take my own kids on a holiday light and Nativity scene tour this year; my father’s outdoor Christmas tradition is indeed alive. Maybe we will see some of the same houses we did decades ago!