By Fr. Kevin Magner
A lot of talk has been made this year about how many people have been decorating for Christmas earlier than usual. The common feeling for most people has been that with all the “heaviness” of this past year they want to have Christmas decorations around them to make them happy.
That makes sense. We all feel a little lighter in spirit when we are surrounded by Christmas decorations. In addition to the Christmas tree and lights and garlands, we Catholics also have the traditional Nativity scene as part of our Christmas decorations.
A fun fact to know is that December 9, the day after the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, is the traditional day to set up the Nativity Scene, or crèche, in your homes. St. Francis of Assisi is credited with the idea of recreating the Christmas crèche in order to bring people closer to the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. In 1223 St. Francis put together a simple crèche for a Christmas Eve midnight Mass in the Italian town of Grecio. He actually got permission from the pope himself, Honorious III, in order to do this. Francis’ crèche was very simple, consisting only of a manger with straw and an ox and ass. However, the idea became very popular and soon spread throughout Italy.
The earliest creches were what we now refer to as “living Nativities”, with live animals and people playing the roles of Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. Over time, statues began to be used instead of living people and animals. Eventually, these became the smaller home Nativity scenes that are so familiar to us today.
Nativity scenes today range from the very simple to the incredibly elaborate. They can be made from wood, metal, glass, clay, plaster, or even Legos. There are even some specifically designed for children so that they can play with the toy figurines and move them about in the manger. A toy Nativity set may not have been what St. Francis had in mind 800 years ago but actually, it is exactly in keeping with his original idea: to have a means so that people are drawn deeper into the story of Christmas in order to celebrate the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ.