The Story of the Christmas Crèche

Compiled by Pauly Fongemie
Based on THE CATHOLIC HEARTH, Dec. 1994 and the book,
RELIGIOUS CUSTOMS by Fr. Francis Weiser, S. J., Available from TAN Books.



Of all the Christmas decorations we so lovingly place around our homes, the one that is indispensable as it is central to the meaning of Christmas, is the Crèche or Nativity Scene. And at the time it is assembled by the family, the story of the Birth of Our Lord ought to be retold every year. Children should be off to bed with visions of the Infant Savior in their hearts, not sugarplums in their heads. Where did this long-standing custom or tradition come from?

 The Christ Child in the manger and other pictures of the story of Bethlehem have been used in church services from the first centuries. But the crib in its present form and its use outside the church originated with St. Francis of Assisi. Through his famous celebration at Greccio, Italy, on Christmas Eve, 1223, with a Bethlehem scene including live animals, he made the crib popular. Since then it has been a familiar sight in Christian homes all over the world.

             The crib should be a cherished part of the Christmas celebration in every family. It is not only completely religious in significance, but also presents to the children in a beautiful way the Birth of our Lord and Savior, assuming the character of a religious shrine in the houses of the faithful during Christmas season. It should be placed in an honored position, on a table or on some other support, not too high for the children to see it easily. Dignified decorations might enhance its attraction and solemnity.

 It was, and still is, the custom to "unveil" the crib on Christmas Eve in a ceremony of spiritual significance. Parents and children gather before the crib or Nativity crèche, and one of the older children reads the Gospel of Bethlehem [Luke 2]. Then prayers are said and a Christmas carol is sung. At the conclusion of this simple rite, the members of the family wish each other a blessed and merry Christmas. It is at this moment that Christmas really begins in the home. Everything that went before was only preparation. This is the beginning of the Feast, and its high points will be Mass and Communion a few hours later.

  A crib for the family should be procured with care and loving effort. The setting could easily be created at the hobby bench during the evenings of Advent, Father and children helping together and using their imagination concerning the various details of structure, style and shape. The figures of the Holy Family, of shepherds and Magi and animals, may best be bought in a store. Once acquired, they can be used for many successive years.

The crèche scene is a Christmas card from Trademark:

The history of the Christmas crèche in art and literature is a story in of itself, but the real turning point was St. Francis of Assisi's inspiration. For the Saint, Christmas had always been the Feast of Feasts, yet he did not think it had been celebrated as it could have been, The poverty of Christ had become lost in the extravagance of the Christmas festivities An idea occurred to him and while on a visit to Rome, he received permission from the Pontiff to put his idea to work.

       The story of how St. Francis of Assisi "invented" the crib is so delightful and inspiring that it might be told or read to the children every year. We give here the account in the very words of Brother Thomas de Celano, who was there when it happened and who wrote it down:

             Blessed Francis called a friend about two weeks before Christmas and said to him: 'If you desire that we should celebrate this year's Christmas together at Greccio, go quickly and prepare what I tell you; for I want to enact the memory of the Infant Who was born at Bethlehem, and how He was deprived of all the comforts babies enjoy; how He was bedded in a manger on hay, between an ass and an ox. For once I want to see all this with my own eyes.' When the good and faithful man had heard this, he departed quickly and prepared in the above-mentioned place everything that the Saint had told him.

            The joyful day approached. The Franciscans were called from many communities. The men and women of the neighborhood, as best they could, prepared candles and torches to brighten the night. Finally the Saint of God arrived, found everything prepared, saw it and rejoiced. The crib was made ready, hay was brought, the ox and ass were led to the spot and Greccio became a new Bethlehem. The night was radiant with joy. The crowds drew near and rejoiced in the novelty of the celebration. Their voices resounded from the woods, and the rocky cliff echoed the jubilant outburst. As they sang in the praise of God, the whole night rang with exultation. The Saint of God stood before the crib, overcome with devotion and wondrous joy. A solemn Mass was sung at the crib.

              The Saint dressed in deacon's vestments, for a deacon he was [out of humility, St. Francis never became a priest, remaining a deacon all his life]. He sang the Gospel. Then he preached a delightful sermon to the people who stood around him, speaking about the nativity of the poor King and the humble town of Bethlehem.

Quotation from Thomas De Celano was taken by Fr. Weiser from his Christmas Book, with permission of the Publishers.

The parishioners and pilgrims who came to Greccio for Midnight Mass and witnessed the Christmas manger scene were much impressed with the simplicity of St. Francis' crèche and it was from there that the tradition as practice it today took hold and spread around the Catholic world.