Nativity scenes have been a popular Advent and Christmas decoration for centuries, and—like most things glorious, time-honored, and holy—it originated with a Catholic saint.
ST. FRANCIS’ DEVOTION TO THE BABY JESUS
St. Francis of Assisi had a special devotion to the Child Jesus, and he is credited with creating the first nativity scene on Christmas Eve of the year 1223.
It is believed that St. Francis was first inspired by this idea after visiting the historical place of Christ’s birth on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land—the humble stable in a Bethlehem cave. It is likely this event which deepened his devotion to the Child Jesus, who was born into the world in such poverty, humility, and simplicity. In fact, Francis founded his new religious Order to imitate these very virtues.
THE FIRST NATIVITY SCENE
St. Francis recreated the scene of Christ’s birth in a special ritual and Mass he held inside of a cave in Greccio, Italy, inviting both his fellow friars and the townspeople to join in the celebration.
Later he told 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.”
He set up an empty manger (the feeding trough of farm animals which served as Jesus’ crib) inside a cave, and even included a live ox and donkey beside the manger just as it was believed to have happened on that first Christmas night. Through these visual aids he wanted everyone to impress more deeply into their understanding 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 THE STORY
St. Bonaventure (1221 – 1274), a follower and contemporary of St. Francis, has given 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.”
What a beautiful scene! Each time we meet at our churches for a nativity pageant or live nativity scene, or around a nativity decoration for a time of prayer, we are participating in a centuries-old Catholic tradition.
St. Bonaventure goes on to talk about St. Francis of Assisi’s personal devotion to the Baby Jesus that sparked this event:
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.”
ST. FRANCIS’ VISION OF THE CHILD JESUS
The first nativity scene is also associated with an apparition of the Baby Jesus to those gathered with St. Francis on that day. This must have been Jesus’ way of giving his praise and blessing to the nativity scene, which was a novelty in its time and had never been done before.
Again, St. Bonaventure continues the story,
A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Grecio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvellously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep.
This vision of the devout soldier is credible, not only by reason of the sanctity of him that saw it, but by reason of the miracles which afterwards confirmed its truth.
For example of Francis, if it be considered by the world, is doubtless sufficient to excite all hearts which are negligent in the faith of Christ; and the hay of that manger, being preserved by the people, miraculously cured all diseases of cattle, and many other pestilences; God thus in all things glorifying his servant, and witnessing to the great efficacy of his holy prayers by manifest prodigies and miracles.”
THE SPREAD OF THE DEVOTION
St. Francis’ recreation of that first Christmas night 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. It is a historic Catholic tradition and a tool for meditation on the humility, simplicity, and poverty of Christ that he took on, from the moment of his Incarnation, out of his boundless love for his lost sheep.
Nativity sets also make great gifts and treasured family heirlooms – to spread religious devotion, and to encourage your family and friends to have an authentic and prayerful devotion to the Holy Family, the Child Jesus, and the mystery of the Incarnation.
Find our selection of nativities at The Catholic Company here. Tip: Set it out when Advent begins, but don’t add the Baby Jesus figure to the scene until Christmas Eve!
This article has been updated and was originally published in November 2014. © The Catholic Company. All rights reserved.