Nativity Sets: Antique, Vintage, and Contemporary Collectibles

Updated on March 23, 2017
Marye Audet profile image

Marye Audet-White is an internationally known food writer, food editor for Texas Living, cookbook author, and food blogger.

Nativity sets, also called crèches, are depictions of the birth of Christ. These sets usually contain at least Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, and a stable however some may have numerous pieces.

History of Nativity sets

The first nativity scene is believed to have been created by St. Francis in 1223. This was a living scene where people played the roles of the holy family. The idea was to cultivate the worship of Christ. As these living scenes became popular all over Europe people began to create small scenes with wax, carved wood, or ivory figures. The figures were often dressed in elaborate fabrics. They became a Christmas decoration in the homes of royalty and nobles as early as the 15th century.

As the use of these sets spread through Europe they took on a variety of looks and traditions. Today nativity sets can be found in homes, churches, stores, and even public buildings during the holiday season.

Parts of a Creche

No matter how old the nativity set is or where it was made it will have, at the least, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in a manger.  Angels and the wise men are common, yet important pieces as well. After that the craftsman may add shepherds, townspeople, animals of various sorts, and a variety of plants, structures, and other details to create a scene uniquely their own.

Americana Folk Style Nativity
Americana Folk Style Nativity | Source

Collecting Nativity Sets: Antique, Vintage, and Contemporary

Like potato chips, few people can have just one. Once they begin to collect pieces to a set they will often continue to do so. When the first set is complete the collector may choose another set.

While contemporary nativities are nice, many aficionados prefer to pick up vintage and antique pieces. What is the difference? In order for something to be an antique it must be at least 100 years old by most standards. Vintage nativities are at usually at least 20-25 years old but less than 100.

Antique and Vintage Nativity Sets

Antique sets are often made of papier mache or chalkware. These figures, sold individually can often command prices of $100.00 or more. The additional figures of shepherds and animals can be more expensive than the common figures of the Holy Family and the Wise Men.

Victorians were likely to collect imported German nativities and you will find these beautiful antiques if you do some searching. They are often more expensive than other sets and include Belsnickle.

In the 1920s cardboard Christmas houses and nativities were often imported from Japan. These types of Christmas decorations increased in popularity because they were affordable to lower income households.

During the 1940s and 50s chalkware sets imported from Italy gained popularity. Many of these sets were manufactured by a company called Fontanini. The chalkware was usually brightly painted and the figures on the large side.

Plastic sets became popular in the 1960s and were available at Woolworth's and other 5 and 10 stores. These sets are nearly indestructible and easily collected due to the large numbers of them available.

Contemporary Sets

In contemporary art the nativity may not reflect the Christian faith in the least because it has become as much an art form as a religious symbol. You can find scenes made b y artists from Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews for example. Often the actual scene will reflect the culture and belief system of the artist. For example, a Native American artist might have the wise men bearing items that were unique to Native American culture rather than the traditional gifts.

The structure may be a cave or a stable, or it may be something completely in keeping with the community the artist is comfortable with. The variety of structures is as unique as the artists that create contemporary nativity sets.

Some examples of Nativity Sets

Antique nativity sets abound on the Internet. Here are some examples:

Contemporary Collectible Sets

Here is a slideshow of contemporary collectible nativities. You can go to the site to find out more about them by clicking on the Amazon links at the right of this article.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Willow Tree Nativity SetChild's wooden nativity setAmericana set by WillirayeJim Shore Nativitydriftwood nativityprecious moments nativity
Willow Tree Nativity Set
Willow Tree Nativity Set | Source
Child's wooden nativity set
Child's wooden nativity set | Source
Americana set by Williraye
Americana set by Williraye | Source
Jim Shore Nativity
Jim Shore Nativity | Source
driftwood nativity
driftwood nativity | Source
precious moments nativity
precious moments nativity | Source

No matter whether you are collecting contemporary, vintage, or antique sets, a display of nativity sets is a beautiful way to decorate for the Christmas season.


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      Donna 4 years ago

      Thank you for the historical overview!

      I want to suggest to you and your readers a possibility we enjoyed in our previous hometown where members of a single church displayed their personal creches on the first weekend (eventually 4 days) of December, then took them home. Over the years the display grew & grew until it filled their facility. Their center hall with high ceiling was anchored by a huge Christmas tree with all of its ornaments being creche scenes; cafeteria tables lined the walls holding hundreds of sets from all eras & countries; one memorable one was a set of standing photos mounted on acrylic & jig-sawed around the figures of their young children performing in costume. The cloak room was roped off to protect a large set of Lalique figures. The classrooms displayed sets by themes, including a careful multi-level staging of multi-sized French santon, other sets so small they sat under magnifying glasses, and Alpine "windmill sets" that turned in wind from a room fan. The hallways were lined with banners & other (high & low-brow) wall art of nativity scenes. There was a craft room for children's activities. One of the female docents even wore a large collar embellished with nativity-figure buttons and embroidered scenery. Of course there were many practical issues to manage, including insurance, safety, crowd control, set-up & take-down, etc. -- not to mention the increasingly beautiful staging.

      After many years this event was cancelled, perhaps because the lead volunteers had moved away or aged out of active participation, or maybe the volume of cars overwhelmed the neighborhood. I 've wondered if it could have continued if that lone congregation had been willing to ask for volunteers from the 40-some other Christian congregations in town or if some of those other Christian assemblies would have held simultaneous displays -- creating a "progressive dinner/pub crawl" sort of event which would have spread the event across the town, making attendance easier for many people on tight schedules, and attracting more people (including those who only wish to enter their own denominational buildings and those interested in just seeing inside unfamiliar local churches) without necessarily growing too big to handle.

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      Patrizia 6 years ago


      I just found an 80 year old Fonatnini set 12" figures made in Italy for $30.00 at an estate sale. They are beautifully life-like, hand painted, and just beautiful. It was an unexpected find this Christmas season, and I have them displayed in the very large stable in a window. I am so happy to give this set a home here.

    • GmaGoldie profile image

      Kelly Kline Burnett 6 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      Marye Audet,

      Great hub! Loved the link to the nativity sets from around the world. Oh, the family memories linked and passed from generation to generation. Voted up! Very well done.

    • Marye Audet profile image

      Marye Audet 7 years ago from Lancaster, Texas

      Sounds beautiful

    • Marye Audet profile image

      Marye Audet 7 years ago from Lancaster, Texas

      Sounds beautiful

    • Alternative Prime profile image

      Alternative Prime 7 years ago from > California

      Hi Mary,

      I have a "Vintage" Nativity Set which is from Italy, passed down from a relative. I believe it was made in Naples. Hand painted & the craftmanship is impeccable. It's on display every year at Christmas time.

    • parkersarah8415 profile image

      parkersarah8415 7 years ago from USA

      Hello, Marye, this was really useful for me.

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      Susan Haze 7 years ago from Sunny Florida

      I love the looks of the American Folk style nativity scene. Great hub.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

      They are absolutely wonderful

    • CYBERSUPE profile image

      CYBERSUPE 7 years ago from MALVERN, PENNSYLVANIA, U.S.A.

      Hi Marye, I found this Hub very Interesting and enjoyed it very much. Thank You so much and Merry Christmas,