Christmas Traditions: The Nativity Creche (1223)

This is my cat nativity scene.

This is eighth in a series of 12 posts on historical Christmas traditions. I didn’t note my sources, but please trust I did verify the information.

Tradition has it that St. Francis of Assisi created the first living creche during a Christmas Eve Mass in Grecio, Italy, in 1223. The church was too small for the crowd, so he moved them to a nearby grotto, where he set up a manger with hay, and an ox and donkey. This was meant to symbolize the poverty baby Jesus experienced from birth. Since most people were illiterate at the time and Mass was held in Latin, which they didn’t understand, this was a powerful visual learning tool for them. Later on, as Passion Plays and other liturgical drama became popular, people were used to stand in for Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. After the Reformation, crèches became associated with southern Europe. The first ones using statues likely date to the 18th century.

 Do you display a nativity scene at Christmas? For those who aren’t Christian, what is your favorite winter decoration?

 I do. Mine is all made of cats because I’m a crazy cat lady. But my favorite Christmas item is one of the wise men my mom made when I was little and she was taking a ceramics class. She pained him with blond hair, but a black beard. Apparently he found some early bleach!