St. Francis of Assisi staged the first nativity scene in a cave outside of the town of Greccio, Italy on Christmas Eve night 1223.
It is said that St. Francis was inspired to re-create the nativity scene because he was disgusted with the greed and materialism that was rampant in Italy at that time. He felt that people had forgotten that Jesus came to us not as a rich king but as a poor child. In planning the scene St. Francis wrote to his friend Giovanni, “I want to do something that will recall the memory of that child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by.”
The idea of a nativity scene was so radical that St. Francis first wrote to Pope Honorius III for permission before he moved forward with his plans.
The nativity scene that St. Francis planned was a live but silent scene. Hay was piled into a cave outside of town and a manger was set up where the Baby Jesus would lay. It was also important to St. Francis that a live ox and ass be part of the scene because he wanted the people of the town to be moved by the reality that Jesus was born among the animals. To this day, an ox and an ass are standard figures in a nativity scene even though they are not mentioned in the Gospel accounts of Our Lord’s birth. Just as St. Francis intended, when we look at these animals and the humbleness of the nativity scene we should be reminded that if God did not provide a fancy birth for His Son, surely we do not need all of the fancy, new and expensive things that we often associate with Christmas or think that we should have.
According to stories told about St. Francis, on Christmas Eve 1223 he gathered all of his religious brothers from the places where they served and together with the people from the town and the hillsides he led them to the place where he had worked to set up his first humble nativity scene. The people were delighted by this simple scene lit only by the stars above and the lanterns and candles they carried. They celebrated Mass there and St. Francis preached to them, reminding them of how poor and simple the Christ Child’s birth truly was.
After the Mass was over and the people all went home, the brothers wanted to clean up the hay, but St. Francis told them to leave it so that it could bring health to the animals of the forest. Legend says that many sick animals came from all over that night to eat the hay and all were cured.
Quickly the idea of setting up live nativity scenes became popular throughout Italy and within a hundred years every church in Italy had a nativity scene.
Today it is a common tradition to set nativity scenes up in early Advent. However, the Baby Jesus is never added to the scene until Christmas Eve. Some families (or classrooms) may have a tradition of preparing a soft manger for Jesus by allowing children to place a piece of hay or golden yarn in the crib each time that they do a good deed.