St. Francis of Assisi had a special devotion to the Child Jesus, and he is credited with creating the first nativity scene on Christmas Eve of the year 1223.
THE FIRST NATIVITY SCENE
St. Francis recreated the scene of Christ’s birth in a special ritual and Mass he held 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.”
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. Through these visual aids he wanted everyone to impress more deeply into their understanding how Christ came into the world in such poverty and simplicity.
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
St. Bonaventure (1221 – 1274), a follower and contemporary of St. Francis, has given us a complete account of the night 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.”
St. Bonaventure goes on to talk about 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.”