Christmas Come Alive
St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, is credited with popularizing Nativity reenactments.
BY: Mary Bonaccorsi Herzel
Although not the first to create a creche at Christmas, St. Francis of Assisi's charisma did much to spread the joy of depicting the birth of Jesus. The narrative below of Francis' creche is drawn from the writings of his first biographer, Thomas of Celano.
It was mid-December of the year 1223. Christmas was coming, and Francis wanted all people to share in the miracle of the birth of Christ. He sent a message to his friend, a nobleman from the nearby town of Greccio: "If you want us to celebrate the present feast of our Lord at Greccio, go with haste and diligently prepare what I tell you. For I wish to do something that will recall to memory the little Child who was born in Bethlehem and set before our bodily eyes in some way the inconveniences of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he lay upon the hay where he had been placed."
On Christmas eve, people from all over the countryside came to Greccio to see and hear Brother Francis assist in the mass. They came dressed in their holiday best, walking, riding on donkeys, or crowding into little carts drawn by oxen. As the winter darkness fell, the light of the candles and torches lit the way, and their singing warmed the frosty air.
When the faithful arrived at the appointed place, they saw that in a natural cave, Francis had prepared a manger filled with hay. Alongside were an ox and an ass. As the service began, the brothers sang songs of praise. Then Francis spoke about the Nativity and the Child of Bethlehem. At the end of the "solemn night of celebration," the people left and "each one returned to his home with holy joy."
It was claimed that many wonderful things happened that night. One of the onlookers said he saw a little child lying in the manger lifeless, and then Francis went up to it and "roused the child as if from a deep sleep." In other parts of the region, people and animals that had been sick got well, women in difficult childbirth were delivered safely.
Reenactment of the Christmas story spread and grew into a great tradition. In the place where the manger had stood, a church was later erected.