Nativity scenes have been a beloved—and even indispensable—Christmas tradition for 800 years.
Like most so many glorious and holy customs, this one originated with a Catholic saint.
In fact, record tells us that the nativity scene originated with St. Francis of Assisi himself!
St. Francis’s Special Devotion to the Child Jesus
St. Francis of Assisi had a special devotion to the Child Jesus. His strong devotion inspired him to invent the first nativity scene on Christmas Eve of the year 1223.
It is believed that St. Francis was first struck by the idea after he visited the place of Christ’s birth on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land: the humble stable in a Bethlehem cave.
This visit to Bethlehem must have deepened his devotion to the Child Jesus, who was born into the world in perfect poverty, humility, and simplicity.
After all, Francis had founded his new religious order to live out these very virtues.
How St. Francis Came Up With the First Nativity Scene
St. Francis recreated the scene of Christ’s birth in a special ceremony and Mass he organized inside of a cave in Greccio, Italy, inviting both his fellow friars and the townspeople to join in the celebration.
Later he told a friend why he desired to create the first nativity scene in his town:
“I want to do something that will recall the memory of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by.”St. Francis of Assisi
He set up an empty manger (the feeding trough of farm animals which served as Jesus’ crib) inside a cave, and even included a live ox and donkey beside the manger, just as it was believed to have happened on that first Christmas night.
With these visual aids, he wanted to impress upon everyone more deeply how Jesus came into the world in such poverty and simplicity.
This was a typical perspective of St. Francis’ unique charism of simple, poverty-centered spirituality.
It is also said that St. Francis—who was radically devoted to the virtue of evangelical poverty—was inspired to recreate the original nativity scene to overcome the rampant greed and materialism prevalent at that time in Italy.
St. Bonaventure Tells the Story of Francis and His Nativity Scene
St. Bonaventure (1221 – 1274), a follower and contemporary of St. Francis, has given us a complete account of the first live nativity scene:
It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio 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.
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.
What a beautiful scene! Each time we meet at our churches for a nativity pageant or live nativity scene, or around a nativity decoration for a time of prayer, we are participating in a centuries-old Catholic tradition.
St. Bonaventure goes on to speak of St. Francis of Assisi’s personal devotion to the Baby Jesus that sparked this event:
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.
The Miraculous Vision of the Child Jesus
The first nativity scene is also associated with an apparition of the Baby Jesus to those gathered with St. Francis on that day.
This must have been Jesus’ way of giving His blessing to the nativity scene, which was a novelty that had never been done before.
Again, St. Bonaventure continues the story:
A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Grecio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvellously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep.
This vision of the devout soldier is credible, not only by reason of the sanctity of him that saw it, but by reason of the miracles which afterwards confirmed its truth.
For example of Francis, if it be considered by the world, is doubtless sufficient to excite all hearts which are negligent in the faith of Christ; and the hay of that manger, being preserved by the people, miraculously cured all diseases of cattle, and many other pestilences; God thus in all things glorifying his servant, and witnessing to the great efficacy of his holy prayers by manifest prodigies and miracles.
The Nativity Scene Bursts into Widespread Popularity
St. Francis’ recreation of that first Christmas night was so popular that soon every church in Italy had its own nativity scene.
The devotion also spread to private homes, and in modern times even to secular institutions, so much so that it’s now impossible to imagine Christmas without a nativity scene to behold.
Hopefully this story of the first nativity scene will inspire you to see your nativity set as much more than just as a pretty Christmas decoration.
Yes, the nativity scene is a powerful Catholic tradition. It’s a visual aid for meditation on the humility, simplicity, and poverty of Christ which He embraced—from the moment of his Incarnation—out of His unfathomable love for us.
Tell us about your nativity scene.
Is it a family heirloom? Do you have special stories about it, or family traditions related to it?
Please share your story with us in the comments below!