Wednesday November 22nd: Use them or lose them!
November 22, 2023
November 22, 2023

Saint Francis of Assisi and the first Christmas crib

By Dominic J Ganteaume

The first Christmas crib was instituted by Francis of Assisi (1181–1226) in the mountain village of Greccio in central Italy. Francis was able to visit the Holy Land during the Fifth Crusade (1217–1221) which included a visit to Bethlehem.

He was granted permission to visit the Holy Land by Al-Kamil, the Sultan of Egypt, which was then under his rule. Francis preached before Al-Kamil attempting to bring an end to the Fifth Crusade.

Inspired by his visit to Bethlehem, Francis arranged the first live crib (Nativity scene) as part of the annual Christmas observances in Greccio in December 1223.

Francis had established a community of Franciscans in Greccio years before and would come there from time to time. It was in a cave near the Franciscan monastery where he and his brother monks often celebrated Mass, that Francis chose as the venue for his inauguration of the Christmas crib.

His biographer and contemporary, Thomas of Celano (1185–1265), a Franciscan, recounted how Francis used a real baby, hay upon which to lay him, and an ox and an ass to complete his manger scene.

Let us remember that there was a limit to what St Francis could do with the resources of his order and the village where he was. Word was sent out to the people of Greccio and at the appointed hour, they came to the cave carrying torches and candles.

Francis himself preached the sermon, delegating the other parts of the Mass, as it then was, to one of the other friars.

Thomas of Celano tells us, in one of his three biographies of St Francis, that at this Mass, Francis, standing before the manger, seemed to be transfixed with joy and love for the Christ Child.

Apparently, Francis chose this location as he wanted to recall the humility of Christ’s birth. For Francis, the simple celebration was meant to recall the hardships Jesus suffered as a baby in a very real way that was immediately recognisable to his congregation.

It is also told in other sources that at a later time, Francis introduced the crib to Assisi, while there at Christmas. He again used live people and animals in the town square, going as far as to make the animal noises himself, as he told the story of the Birth of Christ. There seems to be no end to how inspired a preacher St Francis was.

The tradition of the Christmas crib spread from Greccio to all over Europe and now the whole world, inevitably evolving as artistic genres developed. The Nativity scene developed from that small tableau in a cave in 1223 to represent the whole Christmas story, complete with shepherds, angels, the Magi and the Star of Bethlehem, the live participants being replaced with figurines.

In the tradition of Christian art, in the Middle Ages and after, scenes from biblical stories were often represented as one continuous narrative, although interpreted by contemporary viewers in their chronological sequence; hence, the representation of the birth of Christ often shows all of the elements of the Christmas story as if occurring at the same time and place.

Greccio, where the Franciscans still have a monastery and where the cave is preserved, remains the epicentre of the spread of that tradition. Centuries later, that first Christmas crib in a cave in an insignificant Italian hillside town, is now an integral part of the Christmas tradition.

In 1224 while in a religious ecstasy, Francis received the stigmata during the apparition of a Seraphic angel on the side of Mount Verna, where he liked to pray and meditate, as he did in Greccio. He died in 1226. In 1228, Francis was declared a saint by Pope Gregory IX.

As this synodal year coincides with the 800th anniversary of the crib, with the Supreme Pontiff bearing the name of Francis, it seems like some very diverse elements have come together.

I remember the days when every Catholic home in this country with a crèche, had to use crumpled yards of special black paper (which one only found at Christmas), moss, stones, tiny potted plants and of course, the full complement of statues: the Holy Family, shepherds, (an ox and an ass, sheep if you had them) angels, the Magi and the Star of Bethlehem.

I hope that the whole Archdiocese of Port of Spain, will make a special effort this year in setting up the Christmas cribs wherever they may be, making them as we know how.