Pictured here is a 65 year-old nativity scene, or crèche, which Sr. Elaine Marie, bookkeeper at St. Anne’s received for a Christmas gift at nine years of age. As she grew up, she and her parents would set it up on their farmstead each year. More figures, such as a deer, Santa, some of the angels, and, of course a dog, where added to the original set over the years. Even after Sr. Elaine entered Religious Life in the late 1950s, her parents continued to put up the set at Christmastime. When they moved to live and work at St. Anne’s some years later, they brought it with them; her mom continued setting it up in her apartment here. Today, this crèche sets on top of a file cabinet in the main office here at St. Anne’s, where staff can be reminded of the miracle of the first Christmas.
So, this is the history of one particular, special, nativity scene; but what is the history of the crèche in general? St. Francis of Assisi and a special Christmas celebration at Greccio in 1223 played a very important role. In an article re-published by the Catholic Education Resource Center, Fr. William Saunders shares the history as it relates to St. Francis. According to Wikipedia, St. Francis had recently returned from the Holy Land. Greccio was a small town in south-central Italy where St. Francis would be spending Christmas. In a cave near there, St. Francis’ famous Christmas commemoration took place. Fr. Saunder’s article draws from St. Bonaventure’s writings:
- It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Greccio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis….Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem. A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Greccio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvelously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep…
According to the Friends of the Creche, “the Low Latin word cripia, meaning manger, was the origin of the terms creche, crib, krippe, krubba, szopka and wertep meaning Nativity Scene respectively in French, English, German and Swedish, Polish and Russian.”
Wikipedia also shares that “such pantomimes became hugely popular and spread throughout Christendom. Within a hundred years every church in Italy was expected to have a nativity scene at Christmastime.” Through time, statues were used in place of live participants. In Catholic countries in early modern times, “sculpted cribs were set up in Catholic churches and homes, often exported from Italy.” These scenes became more elaborate and had their peak in Naples in the 1500s-1700s as well as in Genoa, Italy. By the close of the 19th century, nativity scenes were also even popular outside of Catholic context and had many variations.