Nativity scenes are certainly staples of the season. Many of our homes and churches would not be the same without them. It’s surprising to realize, then, that displaying mangers at Christmas didn’t happen for over a millennium after Christ’s birth – when St. Francis of Assisi set up the first one on Christmas Eve in 1223. Such a novel idea at the time, he even obtained the pope’s permission in advance.
That Christmas, the saintly deacon who founded the Franciscan order invited the villagers and friars of Greccio, Italy, to gather for Mass at his manger. This was not a scene with statues familiar to us today, but rather a cave with animals and their feeding trough-turned-crib. He told a friend, “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.”
It seems St. Francis was inspired by visiting the site of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem during his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He wanted to foster love for the Child Jesus and hoped his “live” Nativity’s visual display would drive home the poverty and simplicity in which God’s Son came into the world. Like St. Francis we call to mind this reality of Christ’s birth each year as we set up our own Nativity scenes.
This article is by Joanna Bogle from Our Sunday Visitor. Joanna Bogle is a British Catholic journalist, writer and broadcaster. She has authored several books, including “Book of Feasts & Seasons” and blogs at joannabogle.blogspot.com.