The Origin of the Nativity Scene

St. Francis of Assisi and St. Bonaventure

The year was 1223 and society looked quite similar to the times we live in.  A man of God, who was simply trying to connect with his fellow friars and towns people conceived of an idea that would inspire  people to this very day. Little did he know that the pilgrimage he took to the Holy Land and a visit to the historical  birth place of Christ would sow a seed that has fed Christians for centuries.

Most of us are unaware that this visual Catholic Christmas gift, the Nativity scene,  started as a response to society’s preoccupation at the time. But who is the man of God  credited with starting this tradition and why did he create it?

In 1223, people were  drawn to materialism and greed was rampant  within the Italian culture. Saint Francis of Assisi was inspired to not only tell, but show what the night of Christ’s birth would have looked like. He reflected on his trip to the Holy Land and set out to stage the first ever Nativity scene in a local cave on Christmas eve of that year.

Creating a visual image

Saint Francis believed the visual aid could deliver the message of the birth of Christ to all. He especially wanted to impress upon  people the beauty of simplicity and poverty,  two virtues to which he was devoted. The  live narrative would help others to deeply understand and participate in the reenactment, providing a vivid experience. Live donkeys and ox were included for visual effect.

He hoped the scene would not only be memorable, but a tool for meditation on humility, simplicity and poverty.

St. Bonaventure, a contemporary and follower of St. Francis, commented on the evening saying, “…he prepared a manger, the brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices and that venerable night was made glorious…”

The atmosphere must have been awe inspiring as the custom spread throughout Italy and soon every church had its very own scene. Now, it is impossible to imagine an Advent or Christmas without the beloved Nativity.

Written by: by Kari Frommel