According to what I read today, the first nativity scene was seen in the 1200's, arranged as a live re-enactment by St. Francis. The tradition caught on, as more and more churches held live nativities, and then nativity scenes with representations of the characters.
During the French Revolution, people were not allowed to worship in their churches, so the nativity scene in the home became important. In Provence, France, figures called "santons" (little saints) were made. These were nativity characters, and they included much more than the traditional ones. The baker, the scissors-sharpener, the hat maker, the blind man - representations from the neighborhood were made and included in the scenes.
These were originally constructed of terracotta, in two halves, then assembled together. They were air-dried, rather than kiln-dried. The process left the figures fragile. They were handmade by the santonnier
What I read today brought to mind our role as "santons' in the nativity story. We are also "made of clay," brought to life by the master's hand. We are fragile, and yet we have a divine mission, to bring the light of Christ to those who need it, even when we are not in church. We are from every walk of life, and we are witnesses to the miracle. We have seen God, and our job is to tell others about what we have experienced.
We talk so much about leaving the "Christ in Christmas." We worry about nativity scenes on courthouse lawns. Nativity scenes are a poor substitute for the real thing. The best way to keep Christ in Christmas is to BE Christians.