Saint Francis of Assisi performed Midnight Mass in Greccio on Christmas Eve 1223 in front of a life-size nativity scene built by Giovanni Velita, with live animals. This is sometimes credited as the first nativity play.
In Belgium, puppet theatres often put on variations on the Nativity play in the weeks before Christmas, with parents and their children in the audience. The play often depicts the Massacre of the Innocents which occurred after the birth of Jesus. Joan Gross traces this augmentation back to cryptic protests in the late nineteenth century against the abuse of native peoples by colonists in the King Leopold II's Congo Free State.
Many Christian primary schools and Sunday Schools put on a Nativity play. Schoolchildren in costume act as the human and angel characters, and often as the animals and props. The infant Jesus is represent by a doll. Parents form the audience.
In the United Kingdom, increasing secularism and sensitivity in multicultural areas to non-Christian pupils has led many schools to end performance of Nativity plays, or significantly alter their content, causing others to complain about excessive political correctness. The Daily Telegraph reported that one in five primary schools was planning a "traditional nativity play" for 2007. At one school in Somerset, disturbances were reported after allegations that tickets had misallocated by organisers, and forged by a parent.
Jean-Paul Sartre's first play was Bariona ou le fils du tonerre, a nativity play performed on Christmas Eve 1940 while a prisoner of war in a German stalag. Sartre saw Christ as part of the Jewish Resistance to the Roman Empire's occupation, mirroring the French Resistance of Nazi Germany's occupation.