What is the origin of the Christmas nativity scene tradition?

The tradition of Polish Christmas nativity scenes has its roots in Italian nativity plays, which were brought to our land by the Franciscan Order. Initially, they were organised in the side altars of churches, and comprised figures of Baby Jesus, Mary, Saint Joseph, the shepherds and the Three Kings standing against the background of a Holy Land landscape. Over time they have been enriched with extended scenery and new figures, including secular ones, in order to increase their attractiveness.
The nativity scene figure sets featured the representatives of various nations, classes, occupations, military formations, national heroes, as well as figures in regional outfits, e.g., highlanders and traditional Kraków inhabitants. In the 18th century, the static figures started to be replaced with puppets that played out various scenes, often of a secular and humorous nature. Such shows enjoyed great interest on the part of viewers, and evoked animated reactions that were not in harmony with the seriousness of the places in which they were held. For this reason, at the end of the 18th century church authorities prohibited the organisation of movable nativity plays in churches and returned to multi-figure stationary compositions.

Elaborated by Anna Kozak (The Dr. Tytus Chałubiński Tatra Museum in Zakopane), © all rights reserved

See the wooden nativity sculpture Wooden sculpture “Highlander” from the collection at the Dr. Tytus Chałubiński Tatra Museum in Zakopane.
See the Nativity Scene by Franciszek Zięba from the collection at the Vistula Ethnographic Park in Wygiełzów and Kraków nativity scene by Maciej Moszew.
See puppets from the nativity play of “Zielony Balonik” [“Green Balloon”] cabaret in the collection from Małopolska’s Virtual Museums:
Puppets from the 
Zielony Balonik [Green Balloon] nativity play — Juliusz Leo

Puppets from the “Zielony Balonik” [“Green Balloon”] nativity play — Jacek Malczewski

A puppet from a nativity play of the “Zielony Balonik” [“Green Balloon”] cabaret representing Jacek Malczewski, created by Jan Szczepkowski