The First Nativity Scene

I hope you are having a blessed Advent season.

Speaking of Advent, do you happen to know who made the first Nativity scene?

It was St. Francis of Assisi.

By my count there are five Nativity scenes on display right now at the Beck house. The big one in the living room. A wooden hand-painted one from South America that we keep out all year long. A little clay one in the kitchen over the sink. And the boys each have one in their bedrooms.

We also have three Christmas trees. One in the living room. One in the family room. And one in the boys' room.

We're a bit crazy.

We all know the Nativity scene. Mary, Joseph, and the baby in the manger. There are some farm animals, usually a cow and donkey. There may also be shepherds, angels, and wisemen.

Where did this scene come from?

Toward the end of his life in 1223 St. Francis went to the town of Greccio to celebrate Christmas. Once there Francis asked John of Greccio to erect a grotto model of Bethlehem. It was to have a straw filled manger with an image of the baby Jesus within it. It was also to have an ox and a donkey. And on Christmas evening the townspeople of Greccio gathered to view this scene by torchlight.

(My research into this has conflicting reports as to whether this first Nativity scene was images in a church or was a live nativity--real animals and people--in a cave.)

From that beginning in 1223 the tradition rapidly spread, with Nativity scenes--live or sculpted--coming to be an almost universal practice of Christian Advent and Christmas observance.

The Becks, obviously, are big fans.

All thanks to St. Francis.

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4 thoughts on “The First Nativity Scene”

  1. My Nativity scene is from Gubbio (the town where St. Francis encountered the wolf) and is hand-painted ceramic from the original design by Aldo Ajo.  I did not know about Francis' connection with Nativity scenes.  Thanks for the information.

  2. I had never heard of the Caganer figurines and my set does not have one.  Ajo was of Spanish descent, but I don't believe his work includes this (to me strange) tradition.

  3. We had some great Caganer discussions a few years ago when I was writing about what I call "incarnational ambivalence" in Unclean.

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