As the season of Advent approaches, we all prepare to celebrate Christ’s entry into the world on Christmas Day. We prepare spiritually, through prayer, and materially, through Christmas decorations and traditions. One such tradition, practiced by people all over the world, is of course the reproduction of Jesus’ nativity scene that we display in our homes and churches. But where did this tradition come from?
The first nativity scene was created by Saint Francis of Assisi in a small grotto near an Italian village called Greccio. He went to that grotto on Christmas day in the year 1223, in order to contemplate with his own eyes the mystery that amazed him: the Incarnation of the immensity of heaven and earth in a fragile creature, in a child.
Thomas of Celano, the first biographer of St. Francis, recounts: “The manger is prepared, the hay is carried in, and the ox and the ass are led to the spot. There simplicity is given a place of honor, poverty is exalted, humility is commended, and out of Greccio is made a new Bethlehem. The night is lit up like the day.”
Thus, the first reproduction of that humble crib was made by the poor man of Assisi, whose love for the infant Jesus continues to inspire millions today, as people all over the world decorate their homes with images of that blessed night in Bethlehem.
This year, the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America plans to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the first nativity scene with a series of events throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons. On the first Sunday of Advent, December 3, there will be a Mass and blessing of the nativity scenes. The occasion will also mark the opening of the special Exhibition of Nativity Scenes hosted at the Franciscan Monastery’s visitor center. The exhibition will bring together hundreds of different Nativity Scenes representing a diversity of cultures from around the world. Most of the cribs on display are part of the Marguerite and Roger Sullivan Collection, which numbers more than 500 creches from over 100 different countries.
The exhibition will run through January 7, and all are invited to visit and to discover the beauty of this tradition. Come join us in commemorating the 800th anniversary of the first nativity scene, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Our Savior in Bethlehem on Christmas.
Download the full program of Greccio at the Franciscan Monastery here