According to the Bible, back in the days of King Herod, was born in Bethlehem, Galilee, he that one day woul be called “King of the Jews”. He was not born in a palace but in a stable, the only place where Joseph and Mary were able to spend the night, and slept in a manger, kept warm by animals − a cow and a donkey. To this Nativity Scene shepherds and their sheep were guided by an angel and then, guided by a star, arrived kings from the East who offered gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Holy Family. The tradition of Nativity Scene dates back to the thirteenth century, in Greccio, Italy, when St. Francis of Assisi recreated this biblical episode with the same simplicity and modesty of the place where Jesus was born and of the people who welcomed him, reinforcing the humility of the Christian ideal.
This initiative by St. Francis was disseminated throughout the major Christian monuments of Europe during the Middle Ages, later reaching the royal and noble houses, which were wealthier and thus had the means to order Nativity Scenes that were great works of art. Over the centuries, the Nativity Scene was popularized and became a true Christmas tradition, present in all homes and, besides bearing figures in ceramic, silver and ivory, Nativity Scenes made of clay or wood, for example, also started to emerge. In Portugal, the Nativity Scene has very ancient traditions, rooted in folk customs.
It is usually put up at the beginning of Advent without the figure of Baby Jesus, which is placed only on Christmas Eve, and it is then disassembled after the Epiphany (day of the Three Wise Men – January 6th). The so-called traditional Portuguese Nativity Scene is − contrary to what we find in other countries – made up of several figures that do not quite fit into the event that they should represent. With the exception of the figures of the Holy Family, the shepherds and the Three Wise Men, all the rest were included in order to add a “more Portuguese feel” to the Nativity scene: a miller and his mill, a laundress, a folk group, a music band, among many other typical Portuguese characters. Such is the case of the “puppets” in the Barcelos Nativity Scene, that are included as one of the main expressions of the religious mentality of the people, making it one of the most characteristic traditional Portuguese Nativity Scenes.
Another example is the Estremoz Nativity Scene, where the figures are modelled to the local taste and tradition as a result of the work of potters who are often inspired by large clay Nativity Scenes made by artists such as Joaquim Machado de Castro. The tradition of the Nativity Scene has inspired various works of art and the Portuguese artistic heritage is vast and rich, therefore deserving a stamp issue dedicated to the festive season in which it is inserted.