Nativity Scene: Origins
The earliest uses of a crib in worship date back to fourth-century Rome. Of the three masses observed at Christmas, one was called Ad Praesepe (meaning “to the crib”). This mass took place in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, at a shrine built from boards believed to have come from the original stable of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Churches throughout Italy and Europe gradually adopted the custom of saying mass over a crib at Christmas time.
St. Francis of Assisi (c. 1181-1226) generally receives the credit for popularizing the Nativity scene as we know it. It is said that at Christmas time in 1224 he recreated the manger scene using real people and animals in a cave near the Italian village of Greccio. Mass was said in this novel setting and St. Francis preached about the humble birth of the newborn King. Onlookers enjoyed this reenact-ment of Christ’s birth so much that the custom soon spread throughout Italy and Europe.
Reenactments of this sort still take place on Christmas Eve in some villages in the French region of Provence. Lengthy processions of costumed villagers solemnly file through the streets arriving finally at the manger of Christ’s birth, where a living Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus await them. In the towns of Les Baux and Séguret hun-dreds of people walk in candlelit Christmas Eve processions that end in the local church where a mass is said.
Living Nativity scenes are also reenacted yearly in Italy. In Abruzzi, Italy, the village of Rivisondoli sponsors a procession and living Nativity scene on Epiphany Eve that involves up to 600 people. Many wear traditional regional costumes and are accompanied by animals as they make their pilgrimage to the manger. Worshipers may also bring gifts for the Holy Child, such as fruit, lambs, chickens, or pigs. The Magi, played by local officials, ride horses. The Virgin Mary rides a donkey and Joseph walks by her side. The procession ends at a manger within a cave and is followed by singing.