Once again, my curiosity has been aroused … this time while helping to build a Nativity Scene. I was surprised to find that our patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi, was responsible for this tradition, as he was for the tradition of Christmas carols.
St. Francis was concerned that the meaning of Christmas was being lost as most people were focused more on the ritual giving of presents than on the true message of Christmas. On Christmas Eve in 1223 he staged the first known Nativity Scene to explain what Christmas is really about. Nearly 800 years later, we still hear religious leaders echoing St. Francis’ words that the true message of Christmas is being lost, buried beneath layers of secular traditions.
St. Francis’ Nativity Scene in 1223 was inspired by his trip in 1221 to Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus. He was deeply moved by visiting the site where omnipotent God, so capable of love and humility, became fully human as a vulnerable infant. Hoping others could enjoy the same profoundly spiritual experience, St. Francis encouraged believers to make pilgrimages to Bethlehem. But by 1223, conflict between the powers vying for control of the Holy Land made travelling there too dangerous, so St. Francis decided to do the next best thing — bring Bethlehem to the pilgrims.
St. Francis’ first Nativity Scene was created in the Italian town of Greccio and involved real people and animals. Greccio was a small town built on a mountainside overlooking a beautiful valley. For the Midnight Mass, St. Francis found a niche in the rock near the town square and set up an altar there. With the help of a local nobleman (John Velita), St. Francis celebrated the birth of Jesus in this cave. The liturgy featured a hay-filled manger in front of the temporary altar, and as St. Francis preached, the nobleman arranged to have an ox and a donkey stand at the altar.
In his biography of St. Francis, St. Bonaventure described what happened that night:
It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Greccio 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 [Pope Honorious III]. 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. 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.
Saint Bonaventure also reported in his book that people saved the hay from the nativity presentation and when cattle later ate the hay, it “miraculously cured all diseases of cattle, and many other pestilences.”
Presentations such as this came in the middle of a period when mystery or miracle plays were a popular form of entertainment and education for European laypeople. These plays re-enacted Bible stories in vernacular languages. Since church services at the time were performed only in Latin, which very few people understood, miracle plays were the only way for laypeople to learn scripture. St. Francis’ Nativity Scene used the same method of visual display to help locals understand and emotionally engage with Christianity.
It is unclear from St. Bonaventure’s account whether St. Francis used people or figures to stand in for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, or if the spectators just used their imagination, but later nativity scenes included both tableaux vivants and dioramas, and the cast of characters gradually expanded to include not only the happy couple and the infant, but sometimes entire villages. (On 1st December 2014, the record number of participants was set at 1,039 people.)
The practice of creating Nativity Scenes with live animals and actors spread, and while living scenes remained popular, static Nativity Scenes also developed, allowing the scene to remain on display for longer periods for meditation. Setting up a Nativity Scene not only lets us remember and celebrate the drama of Jesus’ birth but also revives how St. Francis’ was so enraptured with that drama that he brought it to life.
The familiar cast of characters are not biblically accurate. In the four gospels in the New Testament, Matthew focuses on the wise men’s journey to see the infant king (which might have been up to 2 years after the birth, according to some arguments) and Luke recounts the shepherds’ visit to the manger where Jesus was born. Nowhere in these accounts do the shepherds and wise men appear together, and nowhere in the Bible are donkeys, oxen, cattle, or other domesticated animals mentioned in conjunction with Jesus’ birth. But early Nativity Scenes took their cues more from religious art than from scripture. What would a Nativity Scene be without allowing these artistic interpretations?
Nativity scenes began to be displayed in Italian churches. They were often made out of terracotta and were displayed all year round. Gradually, more figures than St. Francis was able to feature in his original live presentation were added to Nativity Scenes. Later nativity scenes featured angels, shepherds, sheep, camels, and the three wise men.
By the mid-1500’s, Nativity Scenes began to appear not only in churches, but in the homes of wealthier citizens. They were smaller than the large statues found in churches. Instead of being constructed solely of terracotta, artisans began using wax and wood as well. They were also dressed in beautiful clothes.
Over the years, the Nativity Scenes spread to practically all Christian countries, each region adding its own influence, style, local traditions and customs. For example, in Germany, baby Jesus is added to the Nativity Scene only after Christmas Eve.