A view of the Jelso Nativity Scene that was unveiled in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican during the lighting of the Christmas tree on Dec. 7, 2018. Antoine/AdobeStock

The Evolution of the Christmas Crèche

From St. Francis to contemporary displays, this inspirational devotion adorns homes, churches and public squares

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Among the ways Christians profess the miracle of the virgin birth, none is more evident than the Christmas crèche. Every Advent, beginning most often on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Nativity displays — the crèche — begin to appear around the world. At the Vatican, in churches, in town squares, at shopping malls, in homes, millions of these displays honor the birth of Christ. The popularity is widespread, with some museums and churches displaying Nativity scenes year-round.

The manufacturing and selling of the crèche and Nativity-related figurines are a major business; you can purchase every possible kind of Nativity set, including many figures not limited to Jesus, Mary and Joseph — even sports stars, politicians, entertainers and others. The figures represent people from all walks of life and pastimes, often with a focus on local culture. This is all very different from what St. Francis of Assisi began 800 years ago.

St. Francis (1186-1226)

Around the year 1220, St. Francis went to Bethlehem where he visited the Church of the Nativity and came away deeply impressed with the humility, poverty and lowliness emanating from the site.

Francis visualized the Gospel According to Luke, the scenes and surroundings at the birth of Christ: God chose to enter the world through a young Jewish girl and to be born in a cave used as a stable because there was no other place for him. His crib was a feeding trough, a manger designed for animals.

Nativity Cave
Nativity Cave in Hermitage Shrine (Santuario di Greccio) erected by St. Francis of Assisi, the first Christmas Nativity scene. Massimo/AdobeStock

When Francis returned from Bethlehem to his home in Italy, he wanted to share his vision of the Nativity with others, of how the Savior of the world, the Messiah, was incarnated in abject poverty.

Further, Francis prayed to turn people away from the secular gift-giving, away from the materialism that had become so associated with Christmas and restore the focus on Christ.

He asked a friend to set up a living Nativity scene in a cave near Greccio, where Francis wished to celebrate Christmas Eve Mass. Placed in the cave was a stone block covered with straw representing the crib and a live ox and an ass. Certainly, no ox or ass is mentioned in the Scriptures describing the Nativity, but Our Lord’s birth did take place in a stable, so it is likely animals were present.

The reference to an ox and an ass, humble work animals, is found in the Book of Isaiah 1:3, where the prophet writes: “An ox knows its owner, / and an ass, its master’s manger; / But Israel does not know, / my people has not understood.”

This prophecy is believed to apply to the birth of Christ when neither Jew nor gentile was present to worship him. Pope St. Gregory the Great (r. 590-604) interpreted Isaiah’s words to mean that the ox represents “the people of Israel, brought into subjection to the yoke of the Law,” and the ass represents “the people of the gentiles, given up to pleasure, and more overwhelmingly brutish” (“Moralia in Job,” Book 35, No. 39). Francis would have most likely known this interpretation and thus included those two animals.

Since the outdoor Mass proposed by Francis would be considered a dramatization involving the clergy, permission had to be obtained from the pope. Such permission was received from Pope Honorius III (r. 1216-27) and the cave was arranged as requested. At midnight on Christmas Eve, local people were invited to the site and there, by torchlight, holy Mass was celebrated.

This event is well described by St. Bonaventure in his book “The Life of St. Francis” (R. Washbourne, London, 1868): “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. [After the people assembled,] “The man of God stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; many Masses were said before it, and the holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. … [A witness] affirmed that he beheld an infant marvelously beautiful sleeping in that manger, whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake him from sleep.”

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Nativities May Be Anywhere

In 2019, Pope Francis wrote an apostolic letter Admirabile Signum on the meaning and importance of the Nativity scene. He encouraged families to make a tradition of preparing the Nativity scene “but also (encouraged) the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares.” The Nativity scene, he said, “evokes a number of the mysteries of Jesus’ life and brings them close to our own daily lives.”

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Nearly eight centuries later, in December 2019, Pope Francis, wrote: “When, at Christmas, we place the statue of the infant Jesus in the manger, the Nativity scene suddenly becomes alive, God appears as a child, for us to take in our arms.”

On that night in 1223, people looked on this holy scene as the words of the sacred Scripture were being read, Christmas Eve Mass proclaimed. Here was the first outside crèche, the first living Nativity, the forerunner of our beautiful Christmas devotion. This first manger scene, now universally recreated with statues of live animals or persons, was inspired by the Holy Spirit through St. Francis.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks to what must have been in Francis’ heart: “Jesus was born in a humble stable, into a poor family. … In this poverty heaven’s glory was made manifest” (No. 525).

Over the next 100 years, the Nativity scene (called presepe in Italian) could be found throughout Italy. “From Greccio, which had become like a new Bethlehem, the representation of the crib, which had sprung from the heart of a saint, capable of realizing the most sublime poetry in life, spread throughout Italy, Europe and the whole world” (Pope St. John Paul II, Angelus, Dec. 17, 1978).

Nativity Scenes at Churches

While the 13th-century Christmas Nativity scene created by St. Francis was a way to bring visual and living expression to the Gospel, drawings and paintings of the Nativity can be traced to before the fourth century. Following the end of religious persecutions by Emperor Constantine in 313, a crib was displayed in many churches at Christmas. In 432, Pope Sixtus III (r. 432-40) created a cave scene of the Nativity in the first basilica built in Rome: Santa Maria Maggiore (St. Mary Major).

Two hundred years later, relics of the holy crib from Bethlehem were given to Pope Theodore I (r. 642-49) and placed in St. Mary Major. A crèche using statues of living beings was added about 1289 and is considered the oldest in any church. The relics of the holy crib in St. Mary Major, pieces of wood, are part of a crystal reliquary shaped like a crib that is located in a basilica chapel built by Pope Pius IX (r. 1846-78). (In November 2019, a fragment of the holy crib relic was returned to Bethlehem by Pope Francis and placed in the Franciscan Church of St. Catherine, next to the Basilica of the Nativity.)

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Contemplate God’s Love

Pope Benedict XVI (r. 2005-13) said in his Angelus message of Dec. 11, 2005, “The crib helps us contemplate the mystery of God’s love that was revealed in the poverty and simplicity of the Bethlehem grotto. St. Francis of Assisi was so taken by the mystery of the Incarnation that he wanted to present it anew at Greccio [in Italy] in the living Nativity scene, thus beginning an old, popular tradition that still retains its value for evangelization today.”

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From the time of St. Francis through the 14th and 15th centuries the crèche evolved in Italy and Germany, then into other areas of Europe. Beginning in the 16th century, partly in response to the Protestant Reformation, Nativity scenes became more prevalent, although indoor Nativities were often too costly for average families.

It was the French Revolution (1789-99) that created an increase in crèches found in the home. During the Revolution, the French government outlawed the Church and all things religious, including the Christmas crèche. Frenchmen began to make Nativities and related figurines, covertly using a variety of materials. They kept these products small so they would be easy to hide if the authorities came looking.

Eventually, clay was used and the small figurines were mass-produced. The popularity of the crèche outside France exploded during the 18th century with the best artisans making and sculpting these items. It was now that liberties with the location or background of the scene took place and the representation was not necessarily of Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth, but often of the local community where the images were displayed.

Also, in the 18th century, the crèche was introduced to America by European immigrants as well as other countries of the world. During the next century, Nativity scenes could be found across the growing United States.

Contemporary Displays

In 1982, a crèche was placed on the grounds of St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican for the first time. Everywhere in the world, there are more and more elaborate crèche scenes, some with hundreds, even thousands of figurines, many mechanical and in some areas contests are held to see who can produce the most grandiose display.

Controversy has frequently accompanied crèche displays on public property in the United States. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the challenge to a crèche being displayed in a courthouse. The crèche included an angel announcing, “Glory to God in the Highest.” The court said that the angel’s words endorse “a patently Christian message: Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ. … The government may acknowledge Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, but under the First Amendment, it may not observe it as a Christian holy day by suggesting that people praise God for the birth of Jesus” (County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 1989). Each case objecting to a crèche displayed on public land is considered on its own merits and over the years court rulings have gone both ways.

Today, if we visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and go down to the grotto, the place that inspired St. Francis, we would see a sign expressing what we all believe when visiting the Christmas crèche and adore the baby Jesus: “Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.” Pure, simple, in the humblest surroundings, Our Lord was born.

D.D. EMMONS writes from Mount Joy, Pennsylvania.

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Arranging the Crèche

There is some guidance as to how the crèche should be arranged in a Catholic Church. “If a manger is set up in church, it must not be placed in the presbyterium. A place should be chosen that is suitable for prayer and devotion and is easily accessible by the faithful” (“Book of Blessings,” No. 1544).

The Church document “Built on Living Stones” tells us, “The altar should remain clear and free-standing, not walled in by massive floral displays or the Christmas crib, and pathways in the narthex, nave and sanctuary should remain clear” (cf. 124-125, 128).

Many parishes urge parishioners to spend time in adoration before the crèche.

“The Directory of Popular Piety and Liturgy” addresses the Nativity scene in homes: “As is well-known, in addition to the representations of the crib found in churches since antiquity, the custom of building cribs in the home was widely promoted from the 13th century, influenced undoubtedly by St. Francis of Assisi’s crib in Greccio. Their preparation, in which children play a significant role, is an occasion for the members of the family to come into contact with the mystery of Christmas, as they gather for a moment of prayer or to read the biblical accounts of the Lord’s birth” (No. 104).

Typically, it is on the Epiphany that statues of the Magi are added to the Nativity scene. Some scenes are removed following the Epiphany, while many parishes keep the crèche display up until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which marks the end of the Christmas season. Other Catholic churches keep the crèche up until the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, Feb. 2, the end of the Christmas cycle. These dates to remove the crèche are more about custom and tradition absent official Church rules.

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