An 800-year-old tradition: Christmas cribs

A woman stands behind a nativity set which is surrounded by rocks and made up of figures of Mary, baby Jesus, Joseph, Shepherds, Magi and various animals.

800 years since St Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene, Caroline from our Theology team reflects on their enduring popularity.

One of the joys of Christmas for me has always been setting up the nativity set. Carefully putting the figures out, moving the Magi closer each day and waiting for Christmas night before placing the baby Jesus in the manger. In more recent years the crib in my house has become home for a more eclectic bunch of characters – barbies jostling with shepherds for a space near the stable. But this messier nativity continues to spark wonder and joy.

This year we celebrate 800 years since St Francis of Assisi created the first nativity in the Italian village of Greccio in 1223. Inspired by visiting Bethlehem in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Francis arranged for a manger scene in a nearby cave with hay, live barnyard animals and local villagers to play the biblical characters. Francis hoped the staged nativity would help people recognise Christ’s coming in poverty and humility. He reportedly said:

“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 Life of St. Francis, by St. Bonaventure.

The idea of the nativity scene spread and now there are cribs all over the world, reflecting different cultures and traditions. Dona Nazaré is 67 years old and lives in the rural community of Agrovila in Brazil. She tells us how important her nativity scene, pictured above, is to her:

“This nativity scene is 41 years old. It belonged to my mother-in-law, when she died it was passed on to me, and since then I have displayed it every Christmas. When I die, it will be passed to my daughter Alessandra. The nativity scene is a reminder of the life of Jesus.”

Why does the Christmas crib continue to speak to our hearts today? Reflecting on this question, Pope Francis wrote that the scene is like a ‘living Gospel rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture’, showing us God’s tender love.

He continues:

“In a particular way, from the time of its Franciscan origins, the nativity scene has invited us to “feel” and “touch” the poverty that God’s Son took upon himself in the Incarnation…. It asks us to meet him and serve him by showing mercy to those of our brothers and sisters in greatest need.” (cf. Mt 25:31-46).

Admirabile Signum: Pope Francis

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The Christmas crib reinforces the powerful message of the biblical story of Jesus’ birth – that God comes to lift up the lowly, to honour the oppressed, to favour the marginalised and to oppose injustice and violence wherever it is found.

So, as we gaze on a nativity scene this Christmas, may we do so with eyes opened to God’s presence among those who experience poverty or are oppressed by injustice and violence.

Wishing you blessings, joy and peace this Christmas season.

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