“… Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the place where travelers lodged.”
Crèche is the popular French title for these scenes of Christ’s birthplace. It comes from the Latin word cripia, the root from where we get manger and crib. Nativity, of course, is a word that simply means birth, from the French root nativite, but in its capitalized phrase ‘Nativity Scene,’ we all understand it to refer to THE greatest birth of all: Jesus.
From the early days of the Church, believers painted scenes of the birth of Christ, beginning in the catacombs. These scenes became a staple of Christian life and carried on through the years. The first nativity scene specifically documented was created in 10th century Rome at the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. The tradition soon became popular in churches in Italy and across Europe; however these mangers would hardly be recognized today with their elaborate gold, silver, jewel, and precious gem decorations.
It was in the early 1200’s that St. Francis of Assisi would change how the world forever viewed the nativity scene. In 1208 St. Francis, the founder of the Franciscan order, shed his considerable wealth to devote his life to the poor and the ostracized lepers, desiring in all ways to walk in the steps of Jesus Christ. St. Francis and his followers, the Friars Minor, wore coarse woolen tunics tied with knotted rope, begged and worked as servants, shared what little they earned and possessed, all while spreading the humble gospel of Jesus. As an aside, there is a fabulous movie titled Brother Sun, Sister Moon which presents the astounding, moving story of this remarkable man.
St. Francis marveled at the grandiose crèche displays, grieved that the people were losing sight of Christ’s humble origins. As Christmas Eve approached in 1223, St. Francis had an ardent desire to remedy the ornate misrepresentations of Jesus’ birth by creating a manger scene that was true to the biblical account as described in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. He wanted to inspire greater religious feelings, and help in the interpretation of the story of the birth of Jesus.
According to St. Francis’ first biographer, Thomas of Celano, St. Francis told his friend: “If you desire that we should celebrate this year’s Christmas together at Greccio, go quickly and prepare what I tell you; for I want to enact the memory of the infant who was born at Bethlehem, and how he was deprived of all the comforts babies enjoy; how he was bedded in a manger on hay, between an ass and an ox.”
On Christmas Eve of 1223, St. Francis introduced a living crib scene for his Mass in the village of Greccio, Italy, a mountainside vineyard town overlooking a beautiful valley. He set up an altar in a little niche of rock near the town square. A live donkey and ox were tied to a rough straw filled feeding trough, which served as the altar for the Mass service. These were the two animals were specifically chosen because he wanted to allude to Isaiah 1:3 which states, “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand.” It was beautiful in its simplicity. From this time forward, even with the addition of Mary and Joseph, shepherds, the Wise Men, and even the Baby Himself, crèche scenes would retain their air of realism and impoverished glory by depicting a stable setting.
St. Bonaventure (d. 1274), in his Life of St. Francis of Assisi, writes of the scene: “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.”
News of this live nativity scene spread and people began putting crib figures in their local churches, and then in their homes. From Italy the custom of displaying a Nativity Scene spread. Traditionally, the sets were displayed at the front of medieval churches and temples. Eventually, artists began carving these images into wood or making them out of straw, and when the nativity sets moved to other countries like Italy, other materials were used such as stone and ivory. Many Italians commissioned the work of famous artists to hand carve and create their nativity scenes.
In later years the Jesuits in Prague popularized the crèche. In 1562 the crèches came from Italy to Austria, where the first large crèches displayed in churches, and eventually homes, were made popular by the Jesuits and the Franciscans. Traditions and materials would vary from country to country and century to century. Today, crèches hold an honored place in millions of Catholic and Protestant homes across the globe nearly 800 years after St. Francis said to his friend Giovanni: “For once I want to see all this with my own eyes.”
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