According to Rev. Johann G. Roten, director of the Marian Library-International, Research Institute at University of Dayton:
"The earliest (nativity) sets became popular in 17th Century, promoted by the Capuchin, Jesuit and Franciscan orders. By 18th century, créche cultures emerged in Naples, Provence, southern Germany and Austria, each featuring distinctive styles in interpreting the holy family.
ITALIAN: These often featured old temple or castle ruins, making an historical statement that the old culture has been destroyed and a new history is originating. They often include a palm tree representing new life and fertility and longevity.
FRENCH: The créche scene was often placed within context of an entire village, usually clustered at the top of a hill, with narrow streets and houses of brick & mortar ...entire village life is involved in the Christmas event, singing, living, drinking and living. A common figure in Provencial scenes is the Ravi, the Exalted One, shown on his knees with arms reaching to Heaven, in the guise of the village fool. He's the only one who actually expresses in posture and expression the ecstatic joy he has at the time of the nativity. He understands what the baby means. Only the fool is able to be truly wise.
GERMAN & AUSTRIAN:
Landscape is typically included in these scenes. They had mountains,
rivers and valleys, and a city or castle as a geographic representation
of a different dwelling place in the end of history, so that history has
a goal and direction toward the manger in heavenly Jerusalem.
There is strong symbolism in these scenes from Germany and Austria. Sometimes there is a little bridge over an alpine ravine or stream, and you see in the middle of the bridge a woman carrying a bundle of wood on her shoulder. She's rejecting the dark figures on the far side of the bridge--usually thieves or police--to go to the holy family. It's the choice between good and evil.
An apple tree in these scenes is an expression of new life. In the midst of winter darkness, you have an apple tree with ripe apples. All you have to do is pick them."