We all love our Nativity scenes. These have been popular Advent and Christmas decorations for centuries. But were you aware they originated by our beloved St. Francis?
St. Francis of Assisi had a special devotion to the Child Jesus. He is credited with creating the first nativity scene on Christmas Eve of the year 1223.
It is believed that St. Francis was inspired by this idea after he visited the Holy site of Bethlehem on a pilgrimage. As he visited this humble stable in a Bethlehem Cave, his devotion to the Child Jesus was deepened. The Child Jesus was born into the world in poverty, humility, and simplicity. St. Francis founded his new religious Order to imitate these very virtues.
THE FIRST NATIVITY SCENE
The first nativity scene was recreated by St. Francis in a special ritual and Mass he held inside of a cave in Greccio, Italy. St. Francis invited both his fellow friars and the townspeople to join in the celebration.
St. Francis shared with a friend why he desired to create the first nativity scene in his town:
I want to do something that will recall the memory of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by.”The Life of St. Francis, by St. Bonaventure
The first Nativity scene was a live Nativity. He set up an empty manger (the feeding trough of farm animals which served as Jesus’ crib) inside a cave. He also included a live ox and donkey beside the manger just as it was believed to have happened on that first Christmas night.
St. Francis hoped that through these visual aids everyone would understand how Christ came into the world in such poverty and simplicity. This was a typical perspective of St. Francis’ unique charism of simple, poverty-centered spirituality.
It is also said that St. Francis—who was radically devoted to the virtue of evangelical poverty—was inspired to recreate the original nativity scene to overcome the rampant greed and materialism prevalent at that time in Italy.
ST. BONAVENTURE TELLS US THE STORY
St. Bonaventure (1221 – 1274), a follower of St. Francis gives us a complete account of the night of the first live nativity scene:
It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed.
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. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.”The Life of St. Francis, by St. Bonaventure
THE SPREAD OF THE DEVOTION
This live nativity was so popular that soon every church in Italy had its own nativity scene. The devotion also spread to private homes, and in modern times even to secular institutions, so much so that it’s now impossible to imagine Christmas without a nativity scene to behold.
Hopefully, this story of the first nativity scene will inspire you to see your nativity set as much more than just as a pretty Christmas decoration.
Let us remember St. Francis on that night and see that our nativity scenes are a tool for meditation.
Let us remember that Christ was born into this world in poverty, humility, and simplicity. He took this on, from the moment of His incarnation, out of his boundless love for his lost sheep.