Seeds of the Word - The story of the Nativity scene

Foto: St. Francis of Assisi in the scene of the Nativity, Convento de Capuchinos, Spain, Shutterstock Foto: St. Francis of Assisi in the scene of the Nativity, Convento de Capuchinos, Spain, Shutterstock
Learn who created the Nativity scene and how the first one was displayed

It is the holiest tradition to attend the midnight Mass on Christmas. This is one of the four liturgical celebrations offered to celebrate the birth of Christ Jesus: the Vigil Mass, the Mass During the Night, the Mass at Dawn and the Mass During the Day.

It is a custom to display a Nativity scene at the church and at home: Joseph and Mary, Baby Jesus in a manger, a donkey and an ox, the shepherd who represent the Jews, and the Magi who represent the rest of the world. An angel is never missing, and of course the star of Bethlehem is there.

Where does this tradition come from? The birth of the Nativity scene goes back to the 13th century and St. Francis of Assisi.

The Franciscan friar Thomas of Celano said Christmas was always a particularly joyous day for Francis: “If I knew the emperor — he said often — I would beg him to order that wheat is thrown to feed all birds, especially sparrows, and to command all those who have animals in barns to feed them more generously, in memory of the birth of Christ on a manger. I also wish on this solemn day all the rich welcomed the poor at their table!” (Second Life 151; Speculum Perfectionis 124)

In Greccio, John of Velita, a friend of the saint, had offered Francis a highland surrounded by the woods, so he could dwell in there. In 1223, close to Christmas, Francis said to his friend, “Look, I would like to celebrate Christmas with you. I have thought of this: In the woods, close to our hermitage, you will find a grotto: You will display a manger with hay and a donkey and an ox, just like in Bethlehem. I hope at least once I can see through my eyes how the Divine Child slept in the manger, how the Lord surrendered himself to contempt and to extreme poverty out of love for us!”

John of Velita gladly accepted. Having gotten approval from the Holy See, Francis built an altar with the aid of the friars and invited people from all around. By midnight, numerous groups of people arrived holding torches in their hands, while the friars lit candles around the grotto.

During Mass, “when it was time to sing the Gospel — as Thomas of Celano recalls — Francis appeared, with his deacon vestments on. Sighing deeply, feeling his deep devotion burning and radiating his internal joy, the saint stood before the manger and his voice resounded above the crowd teaching about the place where we must look for the highest good. With ineffable sweetness, he spoke about Baby Jesus, the Great King who took upon the human nature, the Christ born in the city of David. At every moment, when Francis mentioned the name of Jesus, the inner flame of his heart put these words in his lips: ‘the Child of Bethlehem’; and this expression found in his lips an extraordinary fascination. He stood before the people as the lamb of God in all the sanctity of his sacrifice.

“When the rite was over, everyone left with their hearts filled with a celestial joy.” (First Life, 80)

This was the first midnight Mass celebrated before the first Nativity scene. The Franciscans, following the example of their seraphic father, spread through the earth this joyous way of venerating Baby Jesus.

As we contemplate our Nativity scene at home this Christmas, may we witness — as Francis did — how Jesus surrendered himself to contempt and to extreme poverty out of love for us.

Be passionate about our faith!

Read the Spanish version of this column.

Northwest Catholic - December 2017

Mauricio I. Pérez, a member of St. Monica Parish on Mercer Island, is a Catholic journalist. His website is