The tradition of setting up a Nativity scene dates back to 1223, when St. Francis of Assisi re-created the stable of Bethlehem on the night of Christ’s birth. As this was a novelty, Francis first sought the permission of the pope himself, and was allowed to make the arrangements in a hermitage outside the little town of Greccio, located in the Italian region of Lazio. At midnight, the townsfolk processed to the hermitage with candles. When the people arrived at the creche, they marveled at what they saw, for it was as though they had been transported back 1200 years to the event of Christ’s birth. Present in the stable were Mary and Joseph, with the animals you would expect to see there – a live ox and ass. There was also the creche, or the crib that was fashioned from a manger, the trough from which animals would eat their food. Because the chapel of the hermitage was too small to accommodate the crowd, they held Midnight Mass there by the creche. St. Francis, who was an ordained deacon, proclaimed the gospel of Christmas and passionately preached to the people about the birth of the “Babe of Bethlehem.” In his account of this event, St. Bonaventure writes that in the creche was a beautiful infant, sleeping soundly. Caught up with emotion, St. Francis picked up the little one and held him tenderly, expressing his love for the tiny Savior, wrapped in swaddling clothes.
For St. Francis, the Incarnation was everything. God uses the material world to share His life with us. The simple beauty of the creche helps us to lift our hearts and minds up in devotion to the God who descends from the heights of Heaven to dwell among us as one of us.
Since the days of St. Francis, the Nativity scene has become a common sight in Catholic churches, front lawns, and village greens in the days and weeks leading up to Christmas, with more figures from the gospels populating the scene – angels, shepherds with their sheep, and Magi with their dromedaries. They represent all of God’s creation – angelic, human (rich and poor), and bestial – gathered around the Creator who has chosen to dwell among us in a way that moves us to love Him.
Pope Francis, in his own reflections on the creche, has said that, “Putting up a nativity scene is like opening the door and saying, ‘Come in, Jesus.’” The Holy Father concludes: “This invitation we make to Jesus to enter our lives makes his closeness concrete. Because if Jesus lives in us, we are reborn. And if we are reborn, it truly is Christmas.”