The origins of the nativity scene tradition as a nationwide phenomenon can be traced back to Austria’s first display of this kind, which was set up in Innsbruck in 1609. In the following centuries, this spread throughout the country, and nativity scenes were displayed in churches, public spaces, and people’s houses. In the process, the various nativity scenes’ designs and the associated rituals blossomed into diverse local and regional characteristics. The nativity scene tradition encompasses setting up scenes, producing the various elements, maintaining existing scenes, and the support of related research.
The birth stable, the grotto, is at the heart of every Christmas nativity scene, with the Holy Family, an ox, and a donkey. In keeping with the Christmas story, they are complemented by the adoration of the shepherds, the Three Kings, and/or other figures. Following the first public nativity scene display in Innsbruck, the nativity scene tradition gradually spread throughout Austria and developed into a somewhat lavish, playful, theatrical scene, with various characters and many local and regional colourings. Due to the fact that nativity scenes found their way into more and more private households, particularly from the 19th century onwards, it is not only the nativity scenes themselves which are passed on from generation to generation, but also the traditions which have evolved within families. The act of preparing and setting up the nativity scene is considered to be an annual highlight in the church calendar for many families, parishes, and associations.
Alongside nativity scenes for Christmas, the Austrian tradition also includes scenes for Lent, the Holy Grave, and year-round scenes. The various types of nativity scenes and their equally varied designs are of significance to local and regional identities. Besides the diversity of the nativity scenes, a variety of rituals developed surrounding the tradition depending on the region. This is due to the use of different materials to create the characters as well as the designs themselves.
Redesigning the scenes is also part of the nativity scene tradition. This is the responsibility of laypeople and craftspeople by means of woodcarving and painted nativity scene backdrops. It is not mandatory for the nativity scene owners and designers to be personally particularly religious; the emotional dimension and an individual’s or family’s traditions associated with the nativity scenes are of much greater importance.
Knowledge about nativity scene design and locally distinctive characteristics is passed on within numerous associations and at nativity scene design schools. Annual events, which promote the exchange of various practices, exhibitions, and regular publications all contribute to the safeguarding and transmission of knowledge.