Reflection: Roots of the Nativity Tradition

Fr. Luis Aponte-Merced, OFM Features

The essay below is reprinted from the parish bulletin of St. Joseph Parish in Orlando, Fla.

For centuries, nativity scenes have been a popular Christmas decoration. St. Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene on Christmas Eve of the year 1223, due to his devotion to the Child Jesus. St. Francis was first inspired by this idea after visiting the historical place of Christ’s birth on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land — the humble stable in a Bethlehem cave. St. Francis recreated the birth of Christ in a Mass he held inside of a cave in Greccio, Italy, inviting both friars and the townspeople for this celebration.

He wanted to do something that would recall the memory of the child born in Bethlehem, and display the inconveniences he had as he lay in the manger, surrounded by animals. He set up an empty feeding trough of farm animals to serve as Jesus’ crib inside a cave, with a live ox and donkey as it was believed to have happened on that first Christmas night. Through these visual aids, he wanted everyone to impress more deeply into their understanding how Christ came into the world in such poverty and simplicity. This was a typical perspective of St. Francis’ unique charism of simple, poverty-centered spirituality. St. Bonaventure (1221 – 1274), a Franciscan friar and theologian who knew St. Francis, wrote an account of the night that St. Francis created the nativity scene in Greccio.

He wrote the following: “It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Greccio 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.”

St. Bonaventure also gives a description of the devotion to the Baby Jesus that created this event: “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.” The first nativity scene is also associated with an apparition of the Baby Jesus to those gathered with St. Francis on that day.

This may have been a way in which Jesus gave his praise and blessing to the nativity scene. St. Bonaventure continues the story, “A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Greccio, 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. ………. 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.”

St. Francis’ recreation of that first Christmas night became so popular that eventually every church in Italy had its own nativity scene. This devotion was also observed in private homes, and in modern times even in non-religious institutions. Hopefully, this story of the first nativity scene will inspire you to see your nativity set as much more than just a pretty Christmas decoration. It is a historic Catholic tradition and a tool for meditation on the humility, simplicity, and poverty of Christ that he took on, from the moment of his Incarnation, out of his boundless love for his lost sheep.

— Fr. Luis, a member of St. John the Baptist Province, is stationed at San Damiano Friary in Orlando, Fla. The previous reflection published in HNP Today, by Daniel Dwyer, OFM, was titled “Reflecting on Veterans Day

Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or other seasonal themes – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at Additional reflections by friars can be found in the Spiritual Resources section of

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