The Christmas Crib
The origin of the Christmas Crib (or Manger or Nativity scene - or French, crêche; Italian presepio; German krippe; Spanish, nacimiento) is often first ascribed to Saint Francis of Assisi, who in 1223 celebrated the Feast of the Nativity in a new way that led to a new devotional practice.
A crib, is a depiction of the birth of Jesus as described in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Nativity scenes exhibit figures representing the infant Jesus, his mother Mary, and Joseph. Other characters from the nativity story such as shepherds, the Magi, and angels may be displayed near the manger. Distinctive nativity scenes and traditions have been created around the world and are displayed during the Christmas season in churches, homes, shopping malls, and other venues, and occasionally on public places and in public buildings. The Vatican has displayed a scene in St. Peter's Square near its Christmas tree since 1982 and the Pope has for many years blessed the mangers of children assembled in St. Peter's Square for a special ceremony.
St. Francis and the Crib
The Christmas Crib (crèche) dates back to St. Francis of Assisi. He was inspired by his recent visit to the Holy Land where he had been shown Jesus's traditional birthplace. To celebrate the birth of Christ, St. Francis recreated the manger scene in a cave in the hills above Greccio, Italy.
It was in 1223 that the first crèche was celebrated in the woods of Greccio near Assisi, on Christmas Eve. There lived in that town a man by the name of Giovanni (John) Velitta, a very holy man who stood in high esteem. Blessed Francis loved with him a special affection because he despised the nobility of the flesh and strove after the nobility of the soul.
Blessed Francis called upon John 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 bedded in the manger on hay between a donkey and an ox. I want to see all of this with my own eyes.” The good and faithful man departed quickly and prepared everything that the Saint had told him. St. Francis arrived and saw that everything had been prepared. The crib was ready, hay was brought, the ox and the donkey were led to the spot. Greccio became a new Bethlehem. The crowds gathered and rejoiced in the celebration.
As the villagers and friars crowded around, a priest began the Mass. Francis gave the sermon. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, Francis’ contemporary, writes: “The saint of God stood before the manger, uttering sighs, overcome with love and filled with a wonderful happiness....He sang the Gospel in a sonorous voice, a clear and sonorous voice, inviting all to the highest rewards. Then he preached to the people standing about and spoke charming words concerning the birth of the poor King, and the little town of Bethlehem....When he spoke the name ‘Child of Bethlehem’ or ‘Jesus,’ his tongue licked his lips, relishing and savoring with pleased palate the sweetness of the words.” The accounts do not say whether the child was a living baby or a carved figure. It was probably the latter, for it is recorded that at least one of the observers “saw the infant come alive.”
The people had bought candles and torches to brighten the night. St. Francis, dressed in deacon’s vestments, (it is said that out of humility he never attempted to become a priest) and sang the Gospel. It is recorded that after the Mass, St. Francis went to the crib and stretched out his arms as though the Holy Child was there, and brought into being by the intensity of his devotion, the Babe appeared and the empty manger was filled with the radiance of the new born King.
St. Francis’ idea of bringing Bethlehem into one’s own town spread quickly all over the Christian world, and soon there were Christmas cribs in churches and homes. The Moravian Germans spread this custom to the United States. They called it Putz. The oldest known picture is a “Nativity scene” dating from about 380 that was a wall decoration in a Christian family’s burial chamber, discovered in the Roman catacombs of St. Sebastian in 1877.
There is a legend that at midnight on Christmas Eve animals have the gift of speech. This gift was bestowed because the humble farm animals gave the infant Jesus His first shelter, and warmed him with their breath, thus they were rewarded with the gift of human speech.
The crib for the Family
In the 16th century, the crêche scene was no longer confined to the churches. It still remains common in the Catholic regions of Europe to arrange the krippe underneath the Christmas tree. It 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.
The spread of the Crib Devotion
Christmas plays, imitating those of Easter, probably grew up in the 11th century. And in the century before Francis lived, ecclesiastics dressed up as the midwives, Magi, shepherds and other persons of the Christmas story, as well as live animals, are already recorded in descriptions of the liturgical drama, the Spectacula Theatricalia, as participants in Christmas celebration. But it was Francis who thrilled the Catholic world with his simple and fervent celebration. After his death in 1226, the custom of having the crib at Christmas spread widely through Europe.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia (Volume IV, page 448) says: “By the dawn of the baroque era, the crib setting had become an intricate scenic landscape, and numerous secular figures were now added to those of the Holy Family, shepherds and Magi. Crib-making thus developed into an important folk art.
The home crib became popular in Catholic Europe after 1600, owing, it is said, to the efforts of the Capuchins. However, manger-building was not originally adopted by Protestants.
The Meaning of the celebration of Jesus’ Birth by St. Francis
The presentation of Jesus’ birth in a living manger was not just a dramatic way of recreating the manger scene. The real miracle was not, as some people say, that the figure of the infant came to life but that there, St. Francis first understood the humility of the Incarnation.
St. Francis brought to the scene a vision that saw more than the pleasant tableau we now have. He wanted to show the hardships Jesus suffered already as an infant. In the daring phrase of St. Paul, he saw the emptying of the glory of the Son of God, born of a gentle mother but still thrown upon a stony and resisting world.
St. Francis wanted to realize and help people realize exactly what God had done for his people, and “how poor he chose to be for our sake.” Francis himself had chosen the bitter poverty of being on the margin of society, with no resources or security. He saw the Son of God placing himself, as it were, on the margin of divinity.
He saw a truly human Jesus, not a divine being hiding behind a deceptive physical facade. The humility of the Incarnation and of the Cross was his constant preoccupation. He wanted to think of nothing else but Bethlehem and Calvary.
His life centered, then, around the sister virtues of poverty and humility. He told his friars not to be ashamed to beg, “since God himself became poor for our sakes....Poverty is the heritage which our Lord Jesus Christ has acquired for us.”
Thomas of Celano says, “He would often meditate on the desolation of Christ and his holy mother with tears, and he maintained that poverty was ‘the queen’ of the virtues, as she had become so radiantly manifest in the King and his mother.”
Francis’ love and compassion for the suffering and Passion of Christ were so deep that he no longer cared about his own pain. In the year after this celebration, he would be so identified with the suffering Christ that the five wounds appeared in his body.
The crib can help us, in fact, to understand the secret of true Christmas, because it speaks of humility and the merciful goodness of Christ, who “though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor”. (II Corinthians 8:9) His poverty enriches those who embrace it and Christmas brings joy and peace to those who, as the shepherds, accept in Bethlehem the words of the angel: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger". (Luke 2:12)
In his Angelus message of Advent 2005, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized that the crib “continues to be a sign also for us, men and women of the 21st century. There is no other Christmas.”
St. Anthony Messenger, issue of December 1989
-Thomas of Celano, Vita prima
Angelus message of Advent 2005, Pope Benedict XVI
The New Catholic Encyclopedia
St. Francis and the Crib by Leonard Foley, O.F.M.