The year was 1223. St. Francis would only live three more years.

It happened that he was preaching in the small central Italian town of Greccio and the good saint wanted to celebrate the birth of Christ in a meaningful way that would speak to the people. How would he make them understand that their Savior had the humblest of earthly beginnings before rising to make the ultimate sacrifice for their salvation?

In a nearby cave Francis assembled an ox, a donkey and a baby (or at least a carved image of one), a manger and people to represent the characters present at Jesus’ birth. Tommaso da Celano, an early biographer of Francis described it as “honoring the simplicity, exalting poverty, praising humility” changing Greccio into a “new Bethlehem.”

The local people came to celebrate the vigil Mass bearing torches. Since Francis was not a priest, another celebrated the Mass, but as a deacon, Francis was able to deliver the sermon.

Francis spoke of the difficulties endured by Jesus and the Holy Family right from His birth. He spoke of how through Christ’s humanity and suffering he expressed His love for mankind. His birth, this nativity, this new beginning, opened the doors for us all.

Since the 13th century the tradition of the nativity scene has been kept and has spread across the world as Christians celebrate the holy birth. Pope John Paul II, in his last book insisted that the animals were not mentioned in the actual gospel. Nonetheless, they are forever members of the “cast of characters” we now associate with the scene. In fact, the oldest, sculpted in the “round” creche or presepio can be found in the church of Santo Stefano (end of the 13th Century) in Bologna.

Originally created without color, the figures were later painted vividly in 1370 by Simone dei Crocefissi. Those colors and the individual characters and elements have unique meaning.

Each country to which the tradition of the Nativity scene spread has put its own spin on the representation. It remains a vivid reminder of love and sacrifice.

Adapted by A. J. Valentini with material from: Christmas at Greccio | Franciscan Media. (n.d.). Franciscan Media. Retrieved Dec. 16, 2020, from