Yesterday I learned something new and interesting. We have all seen and enjoyed many beautiful creche scenes in our lifetimes, but do you know who was the first person in the world to create one? I didn't know, in fact it had never occurred to me that there would have been a first creche. (Creche is the French word for cradle.)
Francis of Assisi lived in the 13th century in Greccio, Italy. He is best known as the founder of the Franciscan Order of Friars. In 1224, Francis had the idea of creating a "living" recreation of the birth of Jesus, as a way to convey the ideas and spirit of Christmas to his illiterate congregation in the village. It is believed that the local shepherds, guarding their flocks outside the town of Greccio inspired him.
Francis had real people dressed in biblical robes and real animals positioned outside a cave on the outskirts of town. In the manger was a life-sized wax figure of the infant Jesus.
On Christmas, Eve, families traveled far and wide to witness the living nativity scene. Francis encouraged people to rejoice in the season of Christ's birth and remove discord from their hearts.
Over time the presepio, as it was called in Italy, grew in popularity. Other towns began featuring the living creche, and soon people had individual nativity scenes in their homes. One of the most famous nativity scenes in Italy is displayed in the Basilica of Saint Cosmos & Damian in Rome. Originally built in Naples during the 17th Century, it measures 45 by 20 feet and has hundreds of wooden figures.
Along with his living nativity scene, Francis sought the help of music to teach his congregation about the birth of Christ. He is credited with singing the very first Christmas carols as well, by adding religious words to everyday tunes. The result was the Italian lauda, which was very popular for the next two hundred years.
Saint Francis was canonized by the church not long after his death in 1226. He had remained a deacon all of his life, never becoming a priest or a bishop. He is best known for his love of and communion with nature. He is the patron saint of animals, ecology, peace, and Italy.