The Nativity Scene – St. Francis’ Great Gift to the World

St. Francis of Assisi was a soldier long before he became one of the world’s greatest religious figures. During the early years of the 13th century, Assisi was heading off to fight a war against a rival city known as Perguia in Central Italy. Assisi fought in the initial battle but he was captured and taken prisoner. He spent the next year of his life locked away in prison. During that time he almost died of a fever. While he was near death, he had a vision about the afterlife and the empty life he was leading on Earth.

The vision had prompted him to change direction and to live in a different manner. After he was released from Perguia he went back home to Assisi and lived his life for Christ and God. Francis soon became a highly influential church leader. After a trip to Bethlehem in 1223, Francis decided that he wanted to create a scene which would help people to remember Christ at Christmas. The scene became known as the Nativity. The Nativity scene is regarded as one of the greatest achievements that St. Francis has given to the world.

The First NativityNatvity Scene
During the Christmas season in 1223, St. Francis sought permission from Pope Honorius III in order to put on a public display to honor Christ on this holiday. The Pope agreed to Francis’ request. St. Francis convinced his friends and his followers to help him with the show. He wanted to put on a live presentation of the show for all of the people of Assisi. He chose the Greccio Cave as destination for the event. He included live actors to play the role of Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus. He also had a donkey and an ox displayed in the show as well. St. Francis hosted the event, narrated the accompanying story and then preached a sermon.

The Nativity was a big time production for its day. People all over the region of western Italy came to the event. They wanted to see this show which was being advertised by everyone. The event was a huge success. When it had ended people everywhere were celebrating and having a good time. Pope Honorius III was so influenced by the Nativity that he made it a point to have the pantomime (live show) of the Nativity to be performed back in Rome. Soon, churches all over the region started to follow suite.

The Birth of Jesus
St. Francis of Assisi based the Manger scene off of the birth of Jesus as recorded in Luke 2: 8 – 20. This particular depiction of Christ focuses on his birth and shepherds that came to the manger to witness this miraculous event. The Wisemen and angels were not depicted in St. Francis’ original Nativity show. Over time the Catholic Church later added the Wisemen and angels based off of Matthew 2: 1 – 23 and Luke 2: 7, 12 and 17. The inclusion of the ox and the donkey by St. Francis was supposedly derived from Isaiah 1: 3.

The Nativity Scene Grows in Popularity
Around 1300 A.D. all Catholic churches were expected to have some type of Nativity scene performed during the Christmas season. Nativity plays and pageants were slowly becoming an integral part of the Christmas season. Churches used live scenes for many years up until the 15th century when the use of static Nativity scenes started to gain popularity. Artist helped to influence this change for the Nativity by creating unique sculptures of Jesus’ birth. The static Nativity scenes emphasized background and scenery and many artists and craftsmen created elaborate sceneries which helped to define the style and look of Nativity displays since that time.

The popularity of the Nativity scene spread all across Europe starting in the early 1300s and continuing well in the 1700s. Within that time period many wealthy people began to purchase Nativity scenes for their homes and the churches began to display the Manger scenes until the Easter season. At one point the Nativity was so popular that it was given more regard during the holiday season than Christmas trees.

Characters Involved in the Nativity
As stated earlier, the original Nativity scene only depicted Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds that visited the manger. Over time people included the Wisemen, angels, sheep, ox’s, donkeys and a whole slew of different biblical characters. Believe it or not Elvis Presley was shown in a Nativity display in Naples, Italy.

El Caganer who is affectionately known as “the Pooper” is an infamous squatting character who is commonly put on display in Spanish Nativity scenes. Adam and Eve have made a special guest appearance in some Nativity displays and so have some of the Major Prophets from the Bible such as Isaiah and Daniel. Manufacturers now create many different characters that can be included into Nativity scenes in order to give it a more dramatic affect. Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas Villages are extremely popular for displaying the Nativity and many people have Nativity figures that reflect their culture and heritage.

Commercial Nativity Scenes
Nativity scenes were not commercially produced until the middle part of the 20th century. Shortly after WWII was over, a manufacturing boom went into effect and many commercialized products were being produced. It was about this time that Christmas decorations really began to take off and the first residential Nativity scenes designed for outdoor lawns were now available to the public. Over the years toy companies such as Lego and Mattel’s Barbie have all created their own version of the Nativity.

Tradition and the Nativity
In 1982 Pope John Paul II officially displayed the Nativity in the Piazza son Pietro or St. Peter’s Square in front of the Christmas tree. His actions have inspired following popes to do the same every year. Many cities, towns and villages exhibit the Nativity scene during the holiday season as a part of their Christmas traditions.

The Nativity scene is now a permanent part of the Christmas culture in almost every country of the world. Some countries, such as China, that have different religious beliefs other than Christianity, have their own versions of the Nativity scene. This display continues to inspire and motivate people to remember that Christmas is all about Christ and not just about the gifts or decorations.