The Nativity scene at Greccio and the tradition of the crèche

Nativity in Greccio - Upper Basilica of St. Francis Assisi, by Giotto

One common way today of transmitting the memory of the birth of Jesus is through the tradition of the crèche. St. Francis is credited with having created the first crèche in history.

The hagiographic tradition relates, albeit without historical certainty, that when Francis went to the Holy Land he had gone to Bethlehem and, bringing home with him the memory of the Town where the Savior was born, he then reproduced the scene of the Nativity on the famous Christmas Eve in Greccio (1Cel 84-86).

In fact, Francis, anxious to make tangible to the faithful the experience of the Son of God, humbled and incarnate in human form, wanted to put in place such a representation, as is recounted in the biographies of the saint by both Thomas of Celano and St. Bonaventure.

In these accounts it is related that Francis prepared a manger with hay, had an ox and a donkey brought there, and then had a Holy Mass celebrated in front of it, before a large crowd of people who had come from all over the region. His love for the Solemnity of Christmas and his devotion to the image of the Nativity found its highest inspiration in the Mystery of the Incarnation, where the saint recognized the humbleness and poverty of the birth of the Messiah. Francis saw this, the renewal of oneself in the sacrament of the Eucharist, where Jesus descends each day through the hands of the priest.

The accounts paint a picture of great simplicity and tenderness, in which on Christmas Eve 1223 Francis prepared the Eucharistic celebration, requesting assistance from his friend Giovanni Velita in the preparation of some items needed to represent the scene of the Child’s birth in Bethlehem and, as he himself said: “to see with the eyes of the body the hardships in which he was placed because of the necessities for a newborn that were lacking” (1Cel).

The Holy Night came and Francis along with the friars and several faithful went to the place where the manger had been set up with hay, a donkey and an ox. “Some sweet words” were preached by Francis, and then a vision of the Child appeared on the hay. The miraculous event stirred up the animals and moved the hearts of many who felt themselves touched by what had happened. Through this action the saint wanted to make it easy for the faithful to understand the Mystery of the Incarnation.

Devotion, a characteristic of Franciscan spirituality, certainly contributed to the development of the practice of representing the Nativity scene, a practice which has continued to the present day.

In preparation for the Solemnity of the Nativity on the Eve before Christmas, in the Grotto of the Nativity the episode of the Crèche at Greccio is evoked by the Franciscan friars, with the protagonist being Father Francis of Assisi in contemplation of the Mystery of the Incarnation.