St. Francis and the Nativity Scene

St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and founder of the Catholic Church’s Franciscan Order, began the Christmas tradition of nativity scenes (also called creches or manger scenes) because he wanted to help people gain a fresh sense of wonder about the miracles that the Bible records from the first Christmas.

Up until Francis set up the first nativity scene in 1223, people celebrated Christmas primarily by going to Mass, where priests would tell the Christmas story in a language that most ordinary people didn’t speak: Latin. Although churches sometimes featured fancy artistic renditions of Christ as an infant, they did not present any realistic manger scenes. Francis decided that he wanted to make the extraordinary experiences of the first Christmas more accessible to ordinary people.

Francis, who was living in the town of Greccio, Italy at the time, got the Pope’s permission to proceed with his plans. Then he asked his close friend John Velita to loan him some animals and straw to set up a scene there to represent Jesus Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. The nativity scene could help people in the area imagine what it may have been like to be present on the first Christmas long ago, when they came to worship at Christmas Eve Mass in December 1223, Francis said.

The scene, which was set up in a cave just outside Greccio, featured a wax figure of the infant Jesus, costumed people playing the roles of Mary and Joseph, and the live donkey and ox that John had loaned to Francis. Local shepherds watched over their sheep in nearby fields, just as shepherds in Bethlehem had watched over sheep on the first Christmas

During the Mass, Francis told the Christmas story from the Bible and then delivered a sermon. He spoke to the people gathered there about the first Christmas and the miraculous impact that placing their faith in Christ, the baby born in a simple manger in Bethlehem, could make in their lives. Francis urged people to reject hatred and embrace love, with God’s help.

From Learn Religions web site