Scripture is unequivocal that Jesus was born in Bethlehem – but exactly where and in what structure within the town south of Jerusalem in the West Bank remains a point of some speculation.

Luke tells us there was no room in the inn, and that Jesus was placed in a manger (2:7) – but whether the animal feeding trough was in a cave, a barn, or a modified house setting is unknown.

Perhaps that’s why it took so many years for a “Nativity” scene to emerge and become part of the Christmas celebration.

Francis of Assisi is credited with setting up the first known reenactment inside a cave in Greccio, Italy. It was Christmas Eve 1223 – exactly 800 years ago. It featured live animals and created quite a buzz – so much so that the tradition stuck and spread, eventually making its way around the world.

Whether the infant Jesus stayed in a cave or barn isn’t important – but the simplicity and poverty of the setting is the whole point. That God chose to send His son into such circumstances is endlessly instructive. Even the fact that that the world didn’t make room for Mary, Joseph and Jesus is a cold but candid reminder we shouldn’t be shocked when culture ignores Him today.

It always makes me smile when I see Nativity scenes in the neighborhood. Just a few years ago, Focus on the Family erected one on our front lawn. The stable was lovingly built by our facilities team. The lights on the trees and wreaths on the door are beautiful, but nothing celebrates Christmas like a depiction of our Savior and His earthly parents.

Beginning in the early 1950s and continuing uninterrupted until 2012, comedian Bob Hope proudly displayed an Italian-made Nativity scene outside the family’s Toluca Lake (Calif.) estate at 10346 Moorpark Street – an unequivocal acknowledgement of the true reason for the Christmas season.

Each year, crowds flocked to see the 18 life-size, hand-carved wooden figures positioned prominently on a platform in the front yard. Neighbors highlighted plastic Santas and singing choristers, but the legendary comic kept it classic and elegant.

Since 2013, the historic display has been in the plaza of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the home parish of the Hope family. The Hope family donated the Nativity following the death of Dolores in 2011 at the age of 102. Bob passed away in 2003 at the age of 100.

Visitors to the large Los Angeles campus can still enjoy the display, which will be featured until January 6th.

Over the years, nativity scenes have been the subject of various court battles and other controversies. Back in 1969, the ACLU objected to a display at The Ellipse in Washington, D.C. Officials caved a few years later. It’s since been reestablished as a privately funded project.

Back in 1984 in Lynch v. Donnelly, the Supreme Court ruled a nativity display in Rhode Island didn’t violate the First Amendment so long as other secular symbols were included. Coach Joe Kennedy’s 6-3 win last year at the High Court, which upheld the Bremerton High School football coach’s right to pray silently after football games, seems to have silenced any additional anti-Christian lawsuits regarding public creche displays.

In a world that’s become increasingly hostile to public expressions of the Christian faith, believers would be wise to boldly and confidently celebrate Christmas as their consciences lead them – and even better if that includes a life-size nativity scene.


Image credit: Gary Schneeberger