By Claudia Mathis
The history of the Nativity scene is thought to originate with St. Francis of Assisi, a 12th century Catholic friar and preacher. He is credited with creating the very first Nativity scene, as a way to convey Christmas as a time of peace and goodwill.
In 1223, St. Francis was visiting the small Italian town of Greccio. He was inspired to make a living recreation of the birth of Jesus as a way to bring the Christmas spirit to the local villagers. It is believed that local shepherds, guarding their flocks outside Greccio, inspired him.
St. Francis prepared a live Nativity scene in a niche in the rock near the town square and arranged for villagers dressed in biblical robes and for live animals to gather around the straw-filled manger. A life-sized wax figure of the infant Jesus was placed in the manger.
On Christmas Eve, families traveled far and wide to witness the spectacle. St. Francis urged the people to rejoice in the season of Christ’s birth.
St. Bonaventure, in his Life of St. Francis of Assisi, described the scene. “The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God (St. Francis) stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ,” wrote St. Bonaventure.
Over time, the presepio, as it was called in Italy, grew in popularity. Other towns began featuring them and soon people displayed individual Nativity scenes in their homes. Wealthy families hired famous sculptors to make their Nativity scenes.
One of the most famous Nativity scenes in Italy is displayed at the Basilica of St. Cosmos & Damian in Rome. Built in Naples during the 17th century, it measures 45 by 20 feet and features hundreds of wooden figurines.
Distinctive Nativity scenes and traditions have been created around the world and are displayed during the Christmas season in churches, homes, shopping malls and other venues. The Vatican displays a scene in St. Peter’s Square near its Christmas tree. Since 1968, the Pope has officiated at a special ceremony in St. Peter’s Square on the last Sunday before Christmas that involves blessing hundreds of mangers and Babies Jesus for the children of Rome. The White House exhibits an 18th century Italian presepio during the Christmas season. Folk art traditions in Europe include the hand-painted santons (small terra-cotta Nativity scene figurines) of France and the colorful szopka (creche) of Poland.
Born in 1181 or 1182 (the exact year is uncertain), St. Francis had a tremendous impact on the world. He is one of the most venerated religious figures in Roman Catholic history, although many only know him through his famous prayer, (“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace …”). St. Francis’ spiritual devotion and charisma defined him and his order. He founded the Franciscan Order, the women’s Order of St. Clare and the lay Third Order of Saint Francis.
St. Francis died in 1226 while singing Psalm 141. On July 16, 1228, Pope Gregory IX pronounced him a saint. He is known as the patron saint of animals, of the environment and of Italy (along with Catherine of Siena). It is customary for Roman Catholic and Anglican churches to hold ceremonies blessing animals on his feast day, Oct. 4.