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You May Be Surprised by Which Saint Invented the Christmas Nativity Scene

It’s not who you’d expect

Nativity scene in Greccio, Italy (Image: Vatican News)

In a story I published yesterday debunking five cherished Christmas myths, I included a picture of a Nativity scene (you can read the piece to find out why). Also yesterday, as I was searching for my own Nativity scene so I can hopefully get it set up before January, I started thinking about this most ubiquitous of holiday displays. I felt a little Grinchy about including it among the list of myths, so today I’ll give you something positive to help offset that.

Along with the Christmas tree, one of the most common and enduring Christmas traditions around the world is the Nativity scene (also known as a crèche). You will find them in churches, homes, businesses, outdoor lawn displays, and even among non-Christians. In addition to the typical Mary/Joseph/Baby Jesus ones you expect, I have seen some comical (some would say blasphemous) variations over the years, including a Star Wars-themed one with Baby Yoda in place of the Baby Jesus and one with the Simpsons as the Holy Family.

Sheer crass commercialism aside, the Nativity scene has been a constant at Christmastime for centuries. But how did it start? You may be surprised to learn that it was begun by a saint you already know, and one everyone seems to like: St. Francis of Assisi (I wrote an entire article about him here).

In the year 1223, fifteen days before Christmas, Francis was staying in a hermitage at Fonte Colombo, having just come from Rome. While pondering how to best celebrate Christmas, he remembered his pilgrimage to the Holy Land and his visit to Bethlehem in particular. According to his biographer, St. Bonaventure, he asked himself why he couldn’t set up a replica of the manger scene he had seen there.

There was a cave at the nearby town of Greccio, and with the help of his friend Giovanni Velita (who was the feudal lord of the town) he set up both an altar and a manger in the cave. People came with torches and candles to light the scene, which included not just a manger but a live ox and donkey as well. There was also an infant in the manger, though whether a live baby or a statue is not clear from the records.

St. Francis’ goal was to make the scene of Christ’s birth come alive for the people, and though he may have never intended for it to become a tradition, it quickly spread. Over time it evolved from a live scene, which was hard to replicate in many situations, into one using statues. Early on, additional figures were added to the infant, Mary, Joseph, and the animals; these included shepherds, angels, and the three Magi (if you didn’t go back and read my earlier piece, here’s a spoiler: the gospel account does not place them at the manger).

By 1600, the home Nativity scene had become popular throughout Europe, and the practice spread to the New World and beyond. Today, it is a universal symbol of Christmas, and while it’s likely that St. Francis himself would prefer his original live version, he must be pleased that his visual method of telling the Christmas story has endured for nearly 800 years.

Nativity scene in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, NY (Image: saintpatrickscathedral.org)

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