From: The Writer’s Almanac
Today is the day St Francis of Assisi created the first Nativity scene in Greccio, Italy (1223). A Nativity scene, or crèche, is the special exhibition of objects that represent the story of the birth of Christ. Nativity scenes can be assembled using model figurines, animals, and human reenactment.
St. Francis was a Roman Catholic friar and preacher. He’d recently completed a trip to the Holy Land. Inspired by his visit to Jesus’s traditional birthplace, he wanted to create something to honor the birth of Christ that the villagers of Greccio could take part in. At that time, Mass was in Latin, which only the clergy understood, so during the Middle Ages, “Mystery” and “Miracle” plays were created as ways to teach Scripture to laypeople. They were popular and educational, and Francis thought he could use that idea to entertain the villagers of Greccio.
He received the blessing of Pope Honorius II, gathered an ass and a donkey, found some villagers to play Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, and staged the whole thing in a cave outside Greccio. He drew quite a crowd and preached about the “babe of Bethlehem.” His living Nativity was such a hit that the hay he used as a crib for baby Jesus miraculously acquired the power to cure cattle diseases and various pestilences.
Such pantomimes quickly became popular. Within 100 years, every church was expected to have some sort of Nativity scene at Christmastime.