Francis of Assisi, who founded the Catholic Church’s Franciscan Order and became a saint after his death, began the Christmas tradition of nativity 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 (a worship service) at church, 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 didn’t 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, when the sky suddenly filled with angels who announced Christ’s birth to them.
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.
In his biography of Francis (called the Life of St. Francis of Assisi), Saint Bonaventure described what happened that night: “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 [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 afterward, and when cattle later ate the hay, it: “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 first nativity scene presentation proved to be so popular that people in other areas soon set up living nativities to celebrate Christmas. Eventually, Christians worldwide celebrated Christmas by visiting living nativity scenes and praying at nativity scenes made of statues in their town squares, churches and homes.
People also added more figures to their nativity scenes than Francis was able to feature in his original, live presentation. In addition to the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, a donkey, and an ox, later nativity scenes featured angels, shepherds, sheep, camels, and the three kings who traveled to present gifts to the infant Jesus and his parents.