Have you ever driven by a beautiful outdoor Nativity scene in late December? Did you wonder if you could set one up yourself? Have you longed to share your Christmas spirit with both neighbors and strangers in a simple, unobtrusive way? An outdoor Nativity scene is a great way to share the beauty and joy of Christmas with your neighbors, friends, and community. No expensive gift required!
When St. Francis of Assisi set up the first Nativity scene in the 11th century, he had no idea how popular it would become. He did know, however, that it was a very special way to celebrate Christmas. The first Nativity was full of humble beauty and Christmas magic.
In 1223, the poor friar, Francis, staged a Creche (Nativity scene) in a cave near the village of Grecio. He invited all the villagers to come hear him preach at the Creche on Christmas Eve. St. Francis was famous for his beautiful preaching, so naturally most of the village showed up.
Francis had set up a manger in the cave: hebrought in a real live ox and donkey, and scattered hay across the floor. He didn’t use any statues, because his intention was to show the poverty and humility of Christ’s birth.
That night, Francis and his fellow friars sang hymns and recited Luke’s Gospel. Francis preached to the people and then, as they prayed before the empty manger, the Child Jesus appeared there. Sleeping among the hay, Francis, his brothers, and the villagers beheld the Child, and Francis embraced Him.
It was a magical moment, and the whole village was inspired by the vision they shared.
Since that night, the outdoor Nativity scene has been a beloved part of Christmas celebrations around the world. A Creche can be as simple or as ornate as you choose. But setting one up takes a little bit of planning and forethought. Let’s get started!
Setting up your outdoor nativity scene under shelter is common, and practical, but not always necessary.
Francis set up his Creche scene in a local cave. I don’t know about you, but around here, caves are rare and inconveniently located. Instead, we build a simple structure out of pallets to act as the stable.
Easy to set up and tear down, the pallet “stable” is solid and simple. Even better, this basic structure can be used for years to create your outdoor Nativity.
If you live far from winter snow and drenching rain, consider an open air Creche. Or use an already existing trellis draped in cloth to provide the illusion of shelter.
Even snowy locations can set up an uncovered Nativity scene, provided you’re willing to shovel out the figures when it snows. I love the look of open air Nativity scenes, but they can require a lot of maintenance.
A great addition to any creche shelter is some kind of Christmas lights. White lights are the least distracting, and give a sense of starlight to the scene. Set a small jar of coiled lights before an open manger scene. Drape a row of twinkling lights along the roof of the stable, or give a wise man a lantern to hold.
I recommend avoiding any kind of spotlight, however. White Christmas lights twinkle gently, but a spotlight is brash and overwhelming. There’s no tenderness or peace about a scene that’s slammed in bright fluorescence.
Keep lighting gentle and mild to give your Nativity scene the quiet dignity it deserves.
Populating Your Outdoor Nativity Scene
Traditionally, a creche contains at least figures representing the Holy Family, and one or two animals. That said, none of these are absolute necessities.
The most simple, humble outdoor Nativity scene could include simply a manger in the snow. Such a simple display can represent a longing to welcome the Christ Child without all the frills of a traditional Creche.
Of course, if you’d like to have at least Mary and Joseph in there as well, there are a few options. From figures to flowers, your Nativity can be as varied as you choose to make it.
The most common way to add figures to your outdoor Creche is by purchasing statues. These sculptures can be made of plastic, resin, plaster, stone, or wood. They come in a variety of different of styles, and are definitely some of the easiest choices out there.
Statues allow you to set up a lovely outdoor Nativity scene quickly and easily. Since they’re the most popular choices, you’ll have no problem finding the right ones for you.
I love the idea of setting up an iconography-inspired outdoor Nativity scene with large painted images. If you have an outline to work within, this would be a fantastic way to include kids in the creative process!
Just set up two or three larger-sized panels of plywood. Paint or sand the wood to make a smooth surface for painting, and trace an outline. I’d recommend tracing the outline in pencil first. When you’re sure you have the figures as you’d like to see them, go over the outline in black.
Now you can hand the project over to older children to fill in the figures, or do it yourself. The best thing about this option is that your figures can look as realistic or as abstract as you choose!
If you live in a temperate climate, a floral Nativity could be the choice for you. Traditional flower lore assigns flowers to both Joseph and Mary, as well as the Christ Child. Consider a floral Nativity with lilies (Joseph) and roses (Mary) surrounding a poinsettia.
Or, if you want to really dive into symbolism, surround a manger with lilies and roses, and set a partridge or a peacock figure in the manger. Your neighbors will be fascinated!
While Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are always front and center, the extras are ever changing. If you have a garden gnome or fairy, tuck them in the creche! A St. Francis statue would be ideal, but any garden statue would be a fun addition.
Once you’ve set up your Holy Family, the guests are entirely up to you. Perhaps you’re daughter wants her favorite toy unicorn to join Jesus in the manger? Or your son wants his rocking horse to guard the Christ Child? Don’t squash this creativity, welcome it.
While wise men and donkeys are traditional, your Nativity scene can display your individual devotion as well. Our Nativity includes a unicorn, a griffin, a peacock, and a dog. We’re a fairy-tale loving family. The beauty of your Nativity set may be encouraged by something equally fantastic; or by an ode to your favorite Christmas carol. A little drummer boy or a partridge perhaps?
Putting it all Together
Once you’ve built the stable, set up the manger, and decided who to include in your Nativity, setting up is easy!
Do you want your Nativity Scene out front for all to see, or as an area of personal devotion? Picking the right spot is essential.
Try to avoid wind and excess snow. Right under the eaves of the house isn’t going to be a good choice, trust me! It’s also important to keep the Creche a safe distance from the road. Holiday drivers aren’t always the safest, and road slush in winter is so destructive.
Find a location that suits your purpose and protects your scene. We want these figures to be around for many Christmases to come. Near the porch is often an ideal location.
Straw isn’t essential, but I think it’s a lovely touch. Generations of Christians have used straw to proclaim the humble origins of Jesus at Christmas. My own tradition has us scattering it under the table on Christmas Eve and leaving it until Epiphany. A soft layer of straw under your Nativity set is a great way of tying the scene together.
Christmas Day and Beyond
Many people set out their Nativity scenes after Thanksgiving, in the period of known as Advent. This is the season of anticipating Christmas, and during Advent, beautiful Creche scenes abound.
Like Christmas trees and lights, the Nativity scene is a delight to tired shoppers and eager children alike. It gives us all a chance to pause and reflect as we bustle around this busy season.
I like setting up our Nativity scene on the first Sunday of Advent, but we save the Christ Child for Christmas Eve. All through the December days until Christmas the manger sits empty.
After Christmas Day, however, many people pack away their Nativities as soon as possible. But Christmas isn’t over yet! Traditionally, Christmas is as much a season as Advent: it lasts at least until Epiphany on the 6th of January!
Keep your outdoor Nativity scene shining through this lovely season of lights and festivities. You’ve put a lot of work into this beautiful display, so give everyone a chance to see it.