Wanting to see how Christ was born with his own eyes, in 1224, Saint Francis came up with the idea of creating a “living” recreation of the birth of Jesus, as a way to bring the Christmas spirit to the local villagers. It is believed that local shepherds, guarding their flocks outside the small Italian town of Greccio, inspired him. Saint Francis had real people dressed in biblical robes, and real animals positioned outside a cave on the outskirts of Greccio. In the manager was a life sized wax figure of the infant Jesus.Saint Francis urged the people to rejoice in the season of Christ’s birth and put hatred from their hearts. Over time the presepio, as it was called in Italy, grew in popularity. Other towns began featuring them and soon people had individual nativity scenes in their own homes. Wealthy families hired famous sculptors to make their nativity scenes. One of the most famous nativity scenes in Italy is displayed at in the Basilica of Saint Cosmos & Damian in Rome. Originally built in Naples during the 17th Century, it measures an impressive 45 by 20 feet and features hundreds of wooden figurines.
Not surprisingly, the use of a Christmas nativity scene quickly spread throughout Western Europe. In France it was referred to as a Christmas Crèche, while in German speaking areas it was called a Kribbe. Despite the growing popularity of Christmas trees throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, the nativity scene remained the central focus of Christmas celebrations in Catholic areas. As Catholicism grew world wide, so did the use of the Nativity scene. In Spanish speaking areas it is called a nacimiento and is a prominent part of Christmas traditions in Mexico and other parts of Latin America.
The First Christmas Carols
Along with his living nativity scene, Saint Francis sought the help of music to teach his congregation about the birth of Jesus Christ. According to Tristam Coffin in his book, The Book of Christmas Folklore, Saint Francis is credited with singing the very first Christmas carols, by adding religious lyrics to everyday tunes. The result was the Italian lauda, which was incredibly popular for the next two hundred years.