History’s First Nativity Scene

December 27, 2018

The beautiful tradition of setting up nativity scenes to commemorate the birth of the Infant Jesus was given to us by St. Francis of Assisi. Thomas of Celano* tells how St. Francis celebrated Christmas in the year 1223:

St. Francis of Assisi by Giovanni da Milano

What he [St. Francis] did on the birthday of Our Lord Jesus Christ near the little town called Greccio in the third year before his glorious death should especially be noted and recalled with reverent memory. In that place there was a certain man by the name of John, of good reputation and an even better life, whom blessed Francis loved with a special love,…

Blessed Francis sent for this man, as he often did, about fifteen days before the birth of the Lord, and he said to him: “If you want us to celebrate the present feast of Our Lord at Greccio, go with haste and diligently prepare what I tell you. For I wish to do something that will recall to memory the little Child who was born in Bethlehem and set before our bodily eyes in some way the inconveniences of His Infant needs, how He lay in a manger, how, with an ox and an ass standing by, He lay upon the hay where He had been placed.” When the good and faithful man heard these things, he ran with haste and prepared in that place all the things the Saint had told him.

But the day of joy drew near, the time of great rejoicing came. The Brothers were called from their various places. Men and women of that neighborhood prepared with glad hears, according to their means, candles and torches to light up that night that has lighted up all the days and years with its gleaning star. At length the saint of God came, and finding all things prepared, he saw it and was glad. The manger was prepared, the hay had been brought, the ox and ass were led in. There simplicity was honored, poverty was exalted, humility was commended, and Greccio was made, as it were, a new Bethlehem. The night was lighted up like the day, and it delighted men and beasts. The people came and were filled with new joy over the new mystery. The woods rang with the voices of the crowd and the rocks made answer to their jubilation. The Brothers sang, paying their debt of praise to the Lord, and the whole night resounded with their rejoicing. The saint of God stood before the manger, uttering sighs, overcome with love, and filled with a wonderful happiness. The solemnities of the Mass were celebrated over the manger and the priest experienced a new consolation.

St. Francis of Assisi Preparing the Christmas Crib at Greccio. Painting by Giotto

The saint of God was clothed with the vestments of the deacon, for he was a deacon, and he sang the holy Gospel in a sonorous voice. And his voice was a strong voice, a sweet voice, a clear voice, a sonorous voice, inviting all to the highest rewards. Then he preached to the people standing about, and he spoke charming words concerning the nativity of the poor King and the little town of Bethlehem. Frequently too, when he wished to call Christ Jesus, he would call him simply the Child of Bethlehem, aglow with overflowing love for Him; and speaking the word Bethlehem his voice was more like the bleating of a sheep. His mouth was filled more with sweet affection than with words. . . .The gifts of the Almighty were multiplied there, and a wonderful vision was seen by a certain virtuous man. For he saw a little Child lying in the manger lifeless, and he saw the holy man of God go up to It and rouse the Child as from a deep sleep. This vision was not unfitting, for the Child Jesus had been forgotten in the hearts of many; but, by the working of His grace, He was brought to life again through His servant St. Francis and stamped upon their fervent memory. At length the solemn night celebration was brought to a close, and each one returned to his home with holy joy.

The hay that had been placed in the manger was kept, so that the Lord might save the beasts of burden and other animals through it as He multiplied His holy mercy. And in truth it so happened that many animals throughout the surrounding region that had various illnesses were freed from their illnesses after eating of this hay. . . . and a large number of persons of both sexes of that place, suffering from various illnesses, obtained the health they sought. Later, the place on which the manger had stood was made sacred by a temple of the Lord, and an altar was built in honor of the most blessed father Francis over the manger and a church was built.” (Taken from Thomas of Celano, St. Francis of Assisi [Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1963], pp. 42-44; reprinted with kind permission of the Franciscan Herald Press.)

This is the story of how the tradition of setting up nativity scenes began. This Christmas may we imitate the devotion of St. Francis as expressed in this first nativity scene. Let us contemplate the Infant Jesus born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, and laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn.

TFP Newsletter Vol. V, No. 7, 1989, backcover.

*Thomas of Celano was an Italian friar of the Franciscans as well as a poet and the author of three hagiographies about Saint Francis of Assisi.

Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 658

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