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It is widely supported that the wise men were not present at the time of Jesus' birth. (ie. What is the basis for the belief that the wise men did not arrive in Bethlehem until several months after the birth of Jesus?). However I only 'learned' of this quite late in my America/Protestant EFCA upbringing.

I've been perplexed since as to why the concept of wise men present during Jesus' birth appears to be propagated by Christians during Christmas1; the symbolism is common in Chistian paraphernalia/decorations, yearly 'Away in a Manger' plays mix shepherds/wise men, and such stories are [all too often] presented as 'truth' during such time;

  • Is the placement of the wise men at nativity scene common among churches that observe a 'nativity scene' Christmas?

  • When did the now 'traditional' nativity scene configuration become widespread? Was such tied to a religious (or cultural) movement? e.g. was there a Christian book that made such popular?


1 I realize that celebration of Christmas is very faith/church/culture specific and most such 'traditional' practices are not biblical-based. I also understand (and respect) that many Christians do not celebrate Christmas; or do not celebrate it in this manner.

I'm not looking for a defense, justification, or opinion of such, nor am I looking for a 'History of Christmas' except as such is immediately relevant to this particular perpetuated belief/story.

  • Nicely framed question. There are similar question, "why do they only show three?", "was it in a manger, cave, or some other type of structure?". I'll try to piece references together. It is just my opinion, but I believe people try to cast the entire story in the nativity scene vs just what it looked like when the incarnation of the logos occurred. They also used the manger because it is easier to create than a cave or house. But this is just speculation at best. – The Freemason Apr 1 '15 at 13:16
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This is a good question and has a simple answer.

Nativity scenes are intended to be representations of Jesus birth, not a historically accurate depiction. In other words they are there to remind us of the important elements of the birth, not to be a photorealistic documentary. Therefore the shepherds, the wise men, angels are all included because they were involved, even if they were not all there at the same time. In a static scene it is the only way to make sure that all the important elements are included. Most Christian art is similar in nature, especially older art, and even more especially things like church stained glass windows, which have a similar purpose.

Wikipedia provides an overview of the history of nativity scenes, and I won't attempt to duplicate it here. They originated in the 13thC and were extremely common in the 14thC.

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    We have the Wise Men in our nativity scene; but they're not placed near the manger until the Epiphany. (My siblings have arranged my mom's nativity scene, in her living room, so that the Wise Men rappel in from the upstairs hall.) – Matt Gutting Apr 1 '15 at 15:44
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The Nativity Scene is a Catholic tradition originally performed over most of Advent and the whole of the Christmas season. It should be remembered that Christmas is significantly longer than a single day of celebration. In the traditional form, pieces are added to the set over the whole of both seasons and it functions as a sort of Advent Calendar. The magi are added on the feast of the Epiphany (January 6th).

That being said, being chronologically accurate is not always the best way to use the Nativity scene as an icon of the Incarnation. If setting the scene up all at once helps people grow closer to God more than the gradual set up, the Church recommends the all-at-once method.

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    "Christmas was, at the time of the set's invention, significantly longer than a single day of celebration." Is there a source for this? – Matt Gutting Apr 1 '15 at 17:26
  • @MattGutting I've heard that from multiple reputable sources but I don't have an exact date for the official calendar change for Christmas and I'm not sure how long it was commonly celebrated before that change. I know that there was a lot of diversity in liturgical celebration before the change, but that whole discussion is really irrelevant to the question. Answer edited. – Please stop being evil Apr 1 '15 at 22:46
  • @MattGutting The Nativity set is attributed to St. Francis Assissi. He most certainly would have expected a 12 day liturgical season. – cwallenpoole Apr 20 '15 at 14:51

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