The year was 1223. The place was a cave in Grecio, Italy, a small mountainside village overlooking a beautiful valley. Inside the cave was a live ox, donkey, and manger surrounded by hay. This was the setting of the first nativity creche scene, created by St. Francis of Assisi for midnight Mass on Christmas. The story is recounted in The Life of St. Francis of Assisi, the biography of the saint’s life written by St. Bonaventure.
St. Bonaventure writes that St. Francis was motivated to recreate the nativity scene to “excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the infant Jesus with great devotion.” It was an emotional, joyous, and reverent occasion:
“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.”
Preaching to the gathered villagers, St. Francis was so overcome by emotion that he was unable to say the name Jesus, speaking about him as “the babe of Bethlehem” since he was “unable to utter his name for the tenderness of his love.”
A beautiful infant was sleeping in the manger, “whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep.” It isn’t noted what other roles were present, such as the Virgin Mary or St. Joseph, and whether they were real people, figurines, or left to the observers’ imagination.
The wonder of this first nativity creche was ongoing. The hay that was used for the scene was found to miraculously cure any kind of disease in the animals. St. Bonaventure writes about these miracles: “God thus in all things glorifying his servant, and witnessing to the great efficacy of his holy prayers by manifest prodigies and miracles.”
Over the next few centuries, the nativity tradition spread throughout Europe with varying artistic interpretations. It became particularly popular in Italy, with almost every Catholic church hosting one. Eventually the tradition evolved to have statues represent the nativity characters versus real people.
Built from painted and gilded wood, they were set up within churches. Even more elaborate nativity creches featured Venetian glass and porcelain, purchased by rich families as a sign of wealth. In the 18th century, mechanized creches were constructed and placed in small theaters, featuring the kicking feet of Jesus in the manger. In-home nativity creches also became more common, but were often too expensive for the average family.
During the French Revolution, nativity creches and scenes were banned, so people began to make them in secret using household supplies such as cloth and bread. In Provence, the French province known for its artisanry, the artist Jean-Louis Lagnel began to make affordable nativity creches from clay in 1797. The tiny clay figurines became known as “santons,” meaning little saints. These small nativity creches paved the way for the many styles and sizes we have today.
We know that most nativity creches aren’t biblically accurate as both the shepherds and magi were not both present immediately after Jesus’ birth. Yet the scene includes these characters essential to the nativity story in Bethlehem. These intricate scenes remind us of the eternal significance of Jesus humbling himself to come into the world as a man to save us from sin and bring us to eternal life.
As we set up and admire our own
nativity creches, we should take on the spirit of St. Francis’ awe and
reverence which brought him to tears during that midnight Mass in 1223.
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