Hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus Christ, Jewish prophets foretold the earthly arrival of a Messiah who would deliver the Jews from their oppressors. This Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, an obscure village in Palestine. When a direct descendant of the Jewish king David, a carpenter named Joseph, arrived in Bethlehem with his pregnant wife Mary for a tax census, they could only find shelter in an animal stable. When Mary gave birth to her son Jesus, it is believed that several Eastern astrologers, or wise men, paid homage to the child. This scene is now considered by Christians to be the Nativity, or the honored birth of Christ.
The Nativity of Jesus Christ is one of the essential elements of the Christian holiday known as Christmas. Although there has been speculation over the actual season of Jesus' birth, modern Christians have assigned December 25th as the symbolic date of Christ's arrival on Earth. The Nativity scene traditionally depicts Joseph and Mary receiving visitors, including several local shepherds and a visiting group of Eastern astrologers or mystics known traditionally as the Three Wise Men.
The Nativity does not necessarily represent the precise moment of Jesus' birth, but a time when Joseph and Mary could formally receive visitors. In the traditional Nativity scene, the infant Jesus is presented in a manger, a symbol of His future role as a sacrificial Lamb. Surrounding the manger are a number of domestic animals and the shepherds who tend them. Joseph and Mary are often positioned on either side of the manger, in order to greet their guests and protect the infant Jesus.
During the Nativity, the Three Wise Men are said to have presented Joseph and Mary three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Representations of these gifts are often included in a traditional Nativity scene. Each gift is said to represent an aspect of Jesus' destiny, from the royalty symbolized by the gold, to the bitterness of His death symbolized by the myrrh, a traditional Jewish burial spice. Some modern biblical scholars have wondered if the story of the wise men from the East may be more of a legend than a true event, however.
In modern times, many Christians remember the original Nativity of Jesus by displaying models of the event in their homes. Others volunteer to recreate the story of Jesus' birth and Nativity through dramatizations. Some churches erect a living tableau of the Nativity scene, using live volunteers and real animals.