(Part 1 of 2)
One of the most beautiful Christmas traditions is setting up a crèche during the Advent season. A crèche is a model of the scene at the manger on the first Christmas in the stable at Bethlehem. A crèche can be a small model, set up in the home or a large scene set up at a church or lawn.
The word crèche is from the French word for manger. The French word comes from the Italian word Grecchio. Grecchio was the town where the first manger scene was set up by Francis of Assisi in 1223. The nativity scene created by St. Francis is described by St. Bonaventure in his Life of St. Francis of Assisi written around 1260. St. Francis was a deacon at the time and he was visiting the town of Grecchio to celebrate Christmas. Greccio was a small town built on a mountainside overlooking a beautiful valley. The people had cultivated the fertile area with vineyards. St. Francis realized that the chapel of the Franciscan hermitage would be too small to hold the congregation for Midnight Mass. So he found a niche in the rock near the town square and set up the altar. However, this Midnight Mass would be very special, unlike any other Midnight Mass. St. Bonaventure, who died in 1274, in his Life of St. Francis of Assisi tells the story very clearly, and I quote:
“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. 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. 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 marvelously 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.”
Although the story is long old, the message is clear for us. Our own Nativity scenes which rest under our Christmas trees are a visible reminder of that night when our Savior was born. We must never forget that the wood of the manger that held Him so securely would one day give way to the wood of the cross.
St. Bonaventure was a Franciscan monk. He was 5 years old when Francis died. According to Bonaventure’s biography of St. Francis, St. Francis got permission from Pope Honorius III to set up a manger with hay and 2 live animals, an ox and a donkey. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about the babe in Bethlehem. Bonaventure also claims that the hay used by Francis miraculously acquired the power to cure local cattle diseases and pestilences.
While this part of Bonaventure’s story is dubious, it’s clear that nativity scenes had enormous popular appeal. Francis’ display came in the middle of a period when mystery or miracle plays were a popular form of entertainment for European laypeople. These plays, originally performed in churches and later performed in town squares, re-enacted Bible stories in vernacular languages. Since church services at the time were performed only in Latin, which virtually no one understood, miracle plays were the only way for laypeople to learn scripture. Francis’ nativity scene used the same method of visual display to help locals understand and emotionally engage with Christianity.
Within a couple of centuries of Francis’ inaugural display, nativity scenes had spread throughout Europe. It’s unclear from Bonaventure’s account whether Francis used people or figures to stand for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, or if the spectators just used their imagination, but later nativity scenes included both tableaux vivants and dioramas, and the cast of characters gradually expanded to include not only the couple and the infant, but sometimes entire villages. The familiar cast of characters we see today— namely the three wise men and the shepherds—aren’t biblically accurate. Of the four gospels in the New Testament, only Matthew and Luke describe Jesus’ birth, the former focusing on the story of the wise men’s trek to see the infant King, the latter recounting the shepherd’s visit to the manger where Jesus was born. Nowhere in the Bible do the shepherds and wise men appear together, and nowhere in the Bible are donkeys, oxen, cattle, or other domesticated animals mentioned in conjunction with Jesus’ birth. But early nativity scenes took their cues more from religious art than from scripture.
After the reformation, crèches became more associated with southern Europe (where Catholicism was still prevalent), while Christmas trees were the northern European decoration of choice (since Protestantism—and evergreens—thrived there). As nativity scenes spread, different regions began to take on different artistic features and characters. For example, the santon figurines manufactured in Provence in France are made of terra cotta and include a wide range of villagers.
Written by Heidi C. Bell for The Vetust Club of Ashevllle.