Outdoor Nativity scenes are the Christmas yard decorations that best reflect the religious significance of the holiday, i.e., Christ's birth. But although most anyone in the Western world would recognize such a display, it will be helpful to begin by explaining some of the vocabulary associated with the figures that appear in these tradition Christmas lawn decorations.
First of all, "nativity" means "birth," and Jesus' birth is often referenced as "the Nativity" (capital N). Secondly, you will often hear Nativity scenes called "crèches" or "mangers." A manger, generically speaking, is a food trough (see below). But since, in Nativity scenes, the manger serves as the receptacle for the baby, Jesus, it takes on the specialized meaning of "crib." Crèche, meanwhile, is French for "crib" or "manger."
A picture of an outdoor Nativity scene can be seen above. If you click "More Images" under that picture, a mini-gallery opens up, featuring further pictures of outdoor Nativity scenes.
The display of Nativity scenes in public settings is highly controversial in the U.S., inevitably evoking debate over the separation of church and state. But some Catholics use outdoor Nativity scenes as Christmas lawn decorations on private property.
Outdoor Nativity scenes celebrate Christmas by attempting to depict the birth of Christ, as related in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Luke relates how Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem in order to pay their taxes, by decree of the Roman emperor, Augustus. There was no room for them at the inn, so they took shelter in a stable, in which Jesus was then born. In the fields surrounding Bethlehem an angel informs the local shepherds of this event. It is Matthew who relates the story of the Star of Bethlehem, which the Three Wise Men used as their "North Star," if you will, to guide them to the stable, where they pay homage to Christ.
The figures (or "figurines") in outdoor Nativity scenes vary, but their core usually consists of the stable (less frequently, a cave) sheltering the baby, Jesus in a manger (a "manger" is a food trough for barn animals, functioning, in this case, as a crib), with Mary and Joseph nearby. Note that many people misuse the word, "manger," when referring to outdoor Nativity scenes, as if it were equivalent to "stable." For instance, you'll here folks saying, "Mary and Joseph were staying in a manger when Jesus was born." Technically, however, it is only Jesus who is in the manger in outdoor Nativity scenes.
Figures of the Three Wise Men, guided by the Star of Bethlehem, are often included, too, in outdoor Nativity scenes. A variety of other figurines may also be present, including an angel, shepherds and animals such as mules, sheep and oxen. In most outdoor Nativity scenes you'll see today as Christmas yard decorations, the figures are made of molded plastic, but there are some exceptions. For instance, the figurines in these sets can also be cut-outs (as in the picture above), using wood or another stiff material.